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Saudi Authorities Round Up Thousands Of Illegal Immigrants

After a seven-month grace period expired on Monday, Saudi authorities began rounding up thousands of illegal immigrants in cities across the kingdom.

Reuters reports the government hopes that deporting the immigrants will open up jobs for citizens of Saudi Arabia. The wire service reports:

"'Since early (Monday) morning, the security campaign got off to a vigorous start as inspectors swung into action,' Nawaf al-Bouq, a police spokesman, told Saudi Gazette newspaper.

"Police carried out raids on businesses, markets and residential areas to catch expatriates whose visas are invalid because they are not working for the company that 'sponsored' their entry into the kingdom.

"For a second day on Tuesday parts of the capital Riyadh were unusually empty as many expatriates stayed at home to avoid potential arrest."

Rashid Ahmed, reporting for Arab News in Jeddah, said that many streets in that city were deserted. Many stores in a market were closed as immigrants stayed away, trying to avoid the raids.

"Panic has gripped the expatriate communities. Despite repeated government assurances that labor inspectors would not raid homes, people are in a state of confusion and perpetual fear," Ahmed reports.

The Saudi Gazette said thousands had been detained in public places and squares. The paper reports:

" 'The field security campaign, in coordination with the Labor Ministry, will take place in all cities, provinces, villages and rural towns,' Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Mansour Turki said in a statement on Sunday.

"Before the amnesty expired on Monday the government issued repeated warnings to foreigners to correct their status or face punishments including prison, fines and deportation. Companies employing expatriates without proper visas will also be fined, as will people or firms that charge expatriates a fee to sponsor their visa."

Reuters reports that the unemployment rate in Saudi Arabia stands at 12 percent.

"However, the majority of the kingdom's nine million foreigners are unskilled laborers or domestic workers, jobs usually shunned by Saudis," Reuters adds.

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Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.