Thousands of Tigrayan migrants abused and deported from Saudi Arabia are forcibly detained in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch says
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Thousands of Tigrayans are being deported from Saudi Arabia and held in secret detention sites in Ethiopia, according to Human Rights Watch.
In a new report, the international rights organisation says it has identified two detention sites where thousands of people from the war-torn Tigray region of Ethiopia are being mistreated and forcibly disappeared. The sites, identified via satellite imagery, videos and witness accounts, in the towns of Semera and Shone are most likely used to detain Tigrayan deportees, HRW said.
The HRW report also includes testimony from returnees who claim that they were abused and beaten while in custody in Saudi Arabia.
“Tigrayan migrants who have experienced horrific abuse in Saudi custody are being locked up in detention facilities upon returning to Ethiopia,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Saudi Arabia should offer protection to Tigrayans at risk, while Ethiopia should release all arbitrarily detained Tigrayan deportees,” she said.
Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have migrated over the past decade, travelling by boat across the Red Sea and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia. The causes of this migration include conflict, economic hardship, drought and human rights abuses.
In January 2021, the Ethiopian government announced it would cooperate in the repatriation of 40,000 of its nationals detained in Saudi Arabia. About 40% of the returnees from Saudi Arabia between November 2020 and June 2021 were Tigrayan, according to HRW.
The 23 Tigrayans interviewed for the report are undocumented migrant workers who were rounded up in Saudi Arabia and say they were also subjected to abuses there, including beatings and overcrowding. Many spent up to six years in formal and informal detention facilities in the kingdom.
After being deported to Ethiopia, they were held in facilities throughout the country, HRW said: in centres across Addis Ababa; in Semera, Afar region; in Shone, in a state known as Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples’ region; and in Jimma, Oromia region.
Trhas*, a 33-year-old Tigrayan woman who was deported from Saudi Arabia in December 2020, told HRW that Ethiopian federal police stopped her at a checkpoint at Awash Sebat, Afar, and put her on a bus to what she describes as a “military camp” in Shone.
“We asked the federal police for food and water and the toilet, but we were beaten if we left our seats,” she said, describing the 36-hour bus ride to the camp. “They said, ‘Bandits don’t need food.’”
In 2021, the Guardian exposed Saudi Arabia’s mass mistreatment of undocumented African migrants, exacerbated by the pandemic, at al-Shumaisi detention centre near Jeddah. Detainees interviewed at the time said they were subjected to a litany of abuses including insufficient food and water, unsanitary conditions, denial of medical care, and extortion by the centre’s guards.
Nearly all interviewees said that Saudi authorities had arrested and detained them because of their irregular immigration status, but that the authorities did not provide legal justifications for their detention, nor allow them access to a lawyer or to challenge their detention. Prolonged detention without access to judicial review violates international law.
Saudi Arabia is not party to the United Nations’ Convention on Refugees, and has long drawn international criticism for not having an asylum system.
“Saudi Arabia should stop contributing to this abuse by ending the forced return of Tigrayans to Ethiopia and allowing them to seek asylum or resettlement in third countries,” said Hardman.
A conflict in the Tigray region, in Northern Ethiopia, between Ethiopian federal government and allied forces and those affiliated with the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) began in November 2020. Since then, rights groups and the media have documented numerous abuses including massacres, mass displacement, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and blocking of humanitarian relief.
The Saudi Arabian government’s Centre for International Communication and the Ethiopian government’s Communication Service did not respond to requests for comment.
*Names in the HRW report have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.