The Saudi Arabian government will impose the Nitaqat law from Monday, sending fears among large sections of expatriates from Kerala. The law, meant to put an end to illegal immigrants, is being imposed after having given a grace period of seven months for expatriates to leave that country.

A large number of unskilled Keralites who reached Saudi Arabia on the so-called “free visa” had reportedly gone underground fearing the law. Many had returned home. Although there was no mass exodus during the grace period which ended on Sunday, many Malayalis returned home by making use of the concession given by the Saudi government.

“I wasn’t afraid of being caught. But I know things are not going to be the same any longer in Saudi Arabia,” said Mohammed Anis from Thrissur, who returned from Riyadh.

Mr. Anis was working in a supermarket (he refused to mention the name as he said a few of his friends were still working there illegally) in Riyadh. He reached home the other day after having spent over four years in the kingdom flouting its residence norms. He had reached Saudi Arabia on a servant visa.

Mr. Anis said several of his friends who worked elsewhere in Saudi Arabia had chosen to make use of the concessions given by the government while many others had opted to take the risk. The Saudi government announced that it would not show any leniency on illegal immigrants caught after November 4.

Keralites returning home pointed out that a spacious jail with a capacity of several thousands had been prepared exclusively to deal with the illegal residents. An expatriate caught illegally under the Nitaqat law now will not only have to pay a fine of SR 2,000, but also face life-time ban from returning to Saudi Arabia.

“That is exactly what brought my husband home,” said K. Muneera from Malappuram, who preferred that her husband Mohammed Kutty continued his old job of fish sale in Malappuram.

Some of the expatriates who returned home said that they could not get their papers rectified in time. Some could manage to change their visas. Professionals and skilled workers employed in different sectors have generally been safe when unskilled expatriates who reached Saudi Arabia on various kinds of visas, including that of servant, driver, and housemaid, were facing the threat of banishment.

The concern of the expatriates and their dependants has been palpable across Malabar, particularly in Malappuram district which boasts nearly half of the Malayali immigrants in Saudi Arabia. Of the nearly seven lakh Malayalis working in Saudi Arabia, about 3.5 lakh are from Malappuram district.

Although official figures indicated that only a few hundreds had returned home under the Nitaqat law, the number of people who abandoned their jobs in Saudi Arabia is much more.

And the number of people likely to be deported by the Saudi government in the days to come is likely to be even more.