A group of undocumented Ethiopian workers have said they were subject to serious abuses by Saudi police before they were expelled, including physical and psychological torture and being forcibly held in “dirty” prison camps.
Six Ethiopians told The Associated Press news agency that after being captured by Saudi police officers, some of them were beaten, robbed of their possessions and saw their compatriots shot at and wounded when they tried to escape roundups.
“The prison cell I was put into was so dirty that some of us were severely sick. It was like a toilet,” said Sadiq Ahmed, a former teacher who went to Saudi Arabia five years ago and was detained for 11 days before his deportation.
“As if this was not enough, we were robbed of our belongings. I came here with nothing. I know lots of people who went insane because of this torment.”
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter, is a magnet for hundreds of thousands of people from Ethiopia and other impoverished East African countries.
The number of Ethiopians being smuggled into the kingdom has surged in recent years, with repeated droughts in Africa’s second most populous country leaving 8.5 million people in need of food aid.
According to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, more than 111,500 refugees and migrants crossed into war-ravaged Yemen last year, in the hope of using it as a transit point to enter the kingdom.
The route is popular because it is cheaper than others, but migrants often fall victim to abuse.
Hundreds of Ethiopian and Somali migrants were forced from boats into rough seas off Yemen in August by smugglers trying to avoid authorities or armed groups on shore in war-torn Yemen, IOM said. At least 60 migrants drowned.
Humiliated and abused
Upon reaching Saudi Arabia, many work as domestic workers, often for more than 20 hours a day, with few legal rights.
According to rights groups, many have their phones and passports confiscated and endure physical and sexual abuse.
“I stayed in Saudi Arabia for five years just to support my family and other siblings,” said deportee Fozia Omar, adding that she spent one month in prison but was allowed to bring her luggage.
“We have suffered a lot. I would like to beg my brothers and sisters not to repeat the mistake we already made, in the name of Allah.”
Saudi Arabia has repeatedly said it will deport or jail the 400,000 or so Ethiopians it believes live there illegally, as it seeks to reduce its reliance on millions of foreign workers.
It ordered all undocumented migrants to leave voluntarily in March, but the order was extended until June.
Despite the risks, most have chosen to remain.
Around 250,000 undocumented foreigners have already been detained, of which, 96,000 Ethiopians have been sent home – many of them forcibly.
In a previous crackdown, Saudi authorities had dumped many Ethiopians in the desert near the Yemeni border.
Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle said that in the 2013 crackdown, many “described serious abuses during the process of detention and deportation, including attacks by security forces.”
One deported Yemeni worker said that when he handed himself in to police in Jeddah in 2013, he was remanded at the Briman Prison for 15 days and humiliated by Saudi officers.
“Sometimes they brought food but it was very little, and people fought over it. There was no medical care. Sometimes they slapped us with belts,” he said.