Saudi Arabia: thousands of Ethiopian migrants held in ‘hellish’ conditions – new investigation

Saudi Arabia Ethiopians
Detainees have spoken of being forced to share cells with 350 people © Private

(Amnesty) — Thousands of Ethiopians expelled by neighbouring Yemen in March left to languish in disease-ridden Saudi cells

Reports of dead bodies in cells, with lack of soap and water creating acute COVID risk 

‘It’s hell, I’ve never seen something like this …There are no toilets’ – Ethiopian detainee who spoke to Amnesty

The Saudi Arabian authorities have subjected detained Ethiopian migrants to a catalogue of “unimaginable cruelty” – including chaining detainees together in pairs, confining them 24 hours a day in unbearably-crowded, hot and disease-ridden cells, and forcing them to use their cell floors as toilets – said Amnesty International today.

The shocking findings – detailed in a 26-page report, ‘This is worse than COVID-19’: Ethiopians abandoned and abused in Saudi prisons – follow an investigation by Amnesty into the fate of thousands of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia after they were expelled by the Huthi authorities in neighbouring Yemen in March.

Amnesty has documented the deaths of three detained Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia based on multiple eyewitness testimonies, while detainees reported at least four others deaths. The prevalence of disease and the lack of food, water and healthcare mean the true number of deaths could be significantly higher.

Two detainees reported that guards subjected them and other detainees to electric shocks as punishment for complaining about conditions.

Solomon, 28, told Amnesty: “They used this electric device … It made a small hole on my clothes. I saw a man whose nose and mouth were bleeding after that. Since then, we don’t complain anymore because we’re afraid they’ll do again the electric thing on our back.”

Eight detainees said they had experienced and seen beatings by prison guards, and shootings during escape attempts. One man said he had seen the body of a man who had been shot after trying to escape.

Amnesty interviewed 12 detained Ethiopian migrants (whose names have been changed) via messaging app between 24 June and 31 July. Their allegations have been corroborated by videos, photos and satellite imagery analysed by Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab.

All of the interviewees said they were appallingly mistreated from the moment of their apprehension by the Saudi authorities. The majority have been held at Al-Dayer detention centre, Jizan central prison and prisons in Jeddah and Mecca. Conditions are especially dire in Al-Dayer and Jizan, where detainees report sharing cells with 350 people, a claim supported by videos seen by Amnesty. At Al-Dayer there are no toilets for detainees, and they are forced to use a corner of the cell as a toilet space.

Zenebe, 26, said: “It’s hell, I’ve never seen something like this … There are no toilets. We urinate on the ground, not far from where we sleep. Sometimes we had to walk on it.”

Detainees said illness was rife in the facilities, with skin infections, diarrhoea and yellow fever. Hagos, who was detained in Jizan central prison for five months, said some detainees became so weak they had to be carried to the toilets, which were overflowing and barely functioning.

Detainees said that gunshot wounds sustained at the Yemeni border were the most pressing health issue at Al-Dayer, with the Saudi authorities refusing to provide adequate treatment. Meanwhile, there are reports of dead bodies found among detainees, and of cases where people have attempted to take their own lives but have been prevented by fellow detainees (see further testimonies below).

Amnesty is calling on the Ethiopian government to urgently facilitate the voluntary repatriation of its nationals, while pressing the Saudi authorities to improve detention conditions in the interim.

Marie Forestier, Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International, said:

“Thousands of Ethiopian migrants, who left their homes in search of a better life, have instead faced unimaginable cruelty at every turn. 

“We are urging the Saudi authorities to immediately release all arbitrarily detained migrants, and significantly improve detention conditions before more lives are lost.

“If quarantine spaces remain a significant obstacle, other governments and donors must support Ethiopia to increase the number of spaces, to ensure migrants can leave these hellish conditions as soon as possible”

Lack of soap and water despite COVID risk

All those interviewed said a lack of sanitation was a problem. As their belongings were confiscated at the Yemeni border, detainees have only the clothes they were wearing when they left Yemen, and in Al Dayer and Jizan there are no showers. Despite the intense heat, water is frequently insufficient in the locations where Ethiopians are detained, especially in Al Dayer where guards reportedly only turn on taps for short periods. Even in Mecca and Jeddah prisons where there is water for showers, detainees are not provided with soap. These unsanitary conditions are especially alarming in the context of COVID-19.

Dead bodies

Two detainees reported personally seeing the dead bodies of three people – an Ethiopian man, a Yemeni man and a Somali man – in Al-Dayer centre. However, all those interviewed said they knew of people who had died in detention, and four said they had seen bodies themselves.

Freweyni, 25, described the death of a 15-year-old boy at Al-Dayer:

“He was sleeping on the ground, covered with clothes. He was very weak. He urinated while sleeping. A boy was taking care of him […] We shouted and the guards came in to take him … Four days later, I saw this boy lying on the ground outside. He was dead. I saw another body next to him.” 

Two people told Amnesty they had prevented cellmates from taking their own lives in Jizan and Jeddah prisons. They cited the uncertainty of the situation, as well as the heat and insufficient food as key factors in driving detainees to despair.

Abeba, 24, described the mental distress of some of those at Al Dayer: “Some women speak to themselves, some don’t dress up, some can’t control [themselves] when they urinate.”

Rape, trauma and deaths of new-born children

Amnesty is not aware of any mental health facilities in detention centres. Many detainees are traumatised not only by their detention, but by harrowing experiences on their journeys through Yemen.

Abeba, who travelled from Ethiopia with her 19-year-old sister, said that many women were raped during their stay in Yemen by policemen and smugglers. She said:

“My sister is five months pregnant. She was raped in Yemen. Every time I ask her by who she starts crying.”

Detainees say there are a significant number of pregnant women in detention. Roza, 20, who was six months pregnant at the time of interview, said there were 30 other pregnant women in her cell in Jizan. None of the pregnant women Amnesty talked to or heard about were receiving proper healthcare. Roza said that when women were eventually allowed to see a doctor in Jeddah, guards put metal chains on their legs and tied them in pairs. She said all the women were given the same pills, and she was denied an ultrasound – she has not had one for her entire pregnancy.

Several women have given birth during their detention. After a short stay at a medical facility they are returned to the same unsanitary conditions.  Three women reported that two babies and three toddlers had died – in Al-Dayer, Jeddah and Mecca prisons.

Abeba told Amnesty: “The children became sick in Al-Dayer because we were sleeping in a dirty place, it was too hot and we didn’t receive enough food. They had diarrhoea and they were very thin. Children were taken to the hospital, where they died.”

Repatriation to Ethiopia

Almost every detainee Amnesty interviewed had seen an Ethiopian embassy or consulate official during their detention, and said that Ethiopian officials had seen the conditions first-hand. At the time of writing, none of the detainees Amnesty spoke to had been repatriated and Ethiopia has cited insufficient quarantine space for returnees as an obstacle to any repatriations. However, despite COVID-19 travel restrictions, at least 34,000 Ethiopian migrants returned home globally between April and September, including 3,998 from Saudi Arabia.

Yemen border violence

Until March, thousands of Ethiopian migrants were working in northern Yemen. When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, the Huthi authorities ordered migrant workers to go to the Saudi border, where they were reportedly caught in crossfire between Saudi and Huthi forces. Amnesty was unable to corroborate reports of shootings, but many detainees said they had crossed the border under fire. According to the International Organisation for Migration, approximately 2,000 Ethiopians remain stranded on the Yemeni side of the border, without food, water or healthcare.

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