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(New York) - The government of Saudi Arabia should immediately stop deporting Somalis to war-torn Mogadishu, Human Rights Watch said today.

Saudi authorities returned at least 150 Somali nationals, many of them children, from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to Somalia's capital, Mogadishu, on December 17, 2010, press reports said. Additionally, Saudi Arabia had deported an estimated 2,000 Somalis to Mogadishu in June and July, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

"Deporting anyone to a war zone like Mogadishu is inhumane, but returning children is beyond comprehension," said Rona Peligal, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Saudi authorities should immediately stop these deportations and ensure that Somalis in Saudi Arabia are not returned to their country."

The people deported on December 17 told Somali journalists that they had been arrested by the Saudi police during sweep operations searching for illegal migrants in Jeddah. A 35-year-old Somali woman, who had lived in Saudi Arabia for 20 years and who was deported from Jeddah to Mogadishu in early 2010, told Human Rights Watch that she had been arrested on her way to the market and jailed for two months before being deported. She was not allowed to contact her four children, ages 7 to 15, three of whom were also deported several months later.

Somalia is in the throes of one of its worst crises in nearly 20 years of conflict, and the human rights situation is critical. Continuous fighting between militant Islamist groups, including al-Shabaab, and the Somali Transitional Federal Government rages in Mogadishu, with all parties contributing to indiscriminate attacks on civilians. The only part of the country the transitional government controls is a part of Mogadishu. Many of the areas of the country under al-Shabaab's control are relatively peaceful, but the population is subject to targeted killings and assaults, repressive forms of social control, and brutal punishments under its draconian interpretation of Sharia (Islamic law).

Tens of thousands of Somali civilians have fled Mogadishu and other areas of south-central Somalia since the conflict escalated in late 2006. The UN estimates that up to 1.4 million civilians have been displaced in the past few years, and an estimated 270,000 Somalis have fled Mogadishu over the past year alone.

The consequences of the conflict have been devastating for civilians, thousands of whom have been killed, maimed, or injured by indiscriminate heavy artillery, mortars, and rocket fire. Many of Mogadishu's residents have been on the run from relentless gun and mortar fire since May, trying to find a safe area on the outskirts of the city or desperately attempting to leave Somalia. Food supplies and access to other basic services have been curtailed.

International law prohibits the forcible return of refugees and asylum seekers to persecution and of anyone to a place where there is a risk of torture or other ill-treatment. Recognizing the ongoing conflict and the lack of a functioning government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued new guidelines in May noting that "effective State protection is unavailable in southern and central Somalia." UNHCR advises governments not to return Somali civilians to south-central Somalia because of the "risk of serious harm" that civilians may face there due to widespread violations of the laws of war and large-scale human rights violations.

A UNHCR spokesperson said in May that "involuntary returns to central and southern Somalia under today's circumstances would place individuals at risk." The International Organization for Migration suspended its assistance for voluntary returns to Somalia in June 2008 due to concerns about security.

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