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(Nairobi) – Saudi authorities have deported more than 12,000 people to Somalia since January 1, 2014, including hundreds of women and children, without allowing any to make refugee claims. Saudi Arabia should end the summary deportations, which risk violating its international obligations not to return anyone to a place where their life or freedom is threatened or where they face other serious harm.

Seven Somalis recently deported from Saudi Arabia told Human Rights Watch researchers in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, that the Saudi authorities had detained them for weeks in appalling conditions and some said Saudi security personnel beat them. None had been allowed to speak with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to discuss possible refugee claims before being deported. UNHCR said in mid-January that “south central Somalia is a very dangerous place.” UNHCR also said the Saudi authorities have denied its staff access to detained Somalis in the country.

“The Saudi authorities have deported thousands of men, women, and children to conflict-ridden Somalia, while denying them any chance to seek asylum,” said Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher. “Saudi Arabia should allow anyone fearing serious ill-treatment at home to claim refugee status, with help from the UN, if needed.”

The head of Somalia’s Immigration and Naturalization Services told Human Rights Watch researchers on February 3 that Saudi Arabia had deported 12,332 Somalis to Mogadishu since January 1. According to UNHCR,a number of the deportees are not only from Mogadishu but also from other parts of south-central Somalia.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says the Somali Interior Ministry expects Saudi Arabia to deport another 30,000 in the coming weeks. The deportations are part of a Saudi campaign to remove undocumented foreign workers.

Saudi Arabia should immediately introduce procedures allowing refugees, including those from Somalia, to seek asylum or other forms of protection. Children should not be detained because of their immigration status, and unaccompanied children – those traveling alone without caregivers – shouldnot be held with unrelated adults.If Saudi Arabia identifies anyone at risk of harm in Somalia the authorities should give them secure legal status and should work closely with UNHCR, if needed. It should also urgently improve detention conditions for people waiting to be deported, and only detain as necessary and proportional to that need.

The deported Somalis Human Rights Watch interviewed described severe overcrowding, lack of access to air and daylight, sweltering heat, and limited medical assistance in Saudi detention centers as they awaited deportation. All complained about the quality and quantity of the food. One deportee said prison guards beat him repeatedly, and another saw guards beating detainees who complained about conditions. With one exception, none of the detention centers had bedding and detainees slept on the floor.

Somalis said that beatings and other abusive treatment continued during the deportation process. A woman in her ninth month of pregnancy, Sadiyo, who was arrested and deported separately from her husband, told Human Rights Watch that a Saudi policewoman beat her on the back with a baton while she stood in line at Jeddah airport. She went into labor and gave birth on the cabin floor of the plane as it flew to Mogadishu.

“Saudi authorities should investigate allegations of abuse in detention and during deportation,” Simpson said. “The government should immediately improve its dreadful detention facilities.”

One deported Somali, Mohammed, said Saudi authorities detained him in five detention facilities for a total of 57 days before deporting him.

“In the first detention center in Riyadh [the Saudi capital], there was so little food, we fought over it so the strongest ate the most,” he said. “Guards told us to face the wall and then beat our backs with metal rods. In the second place, there were two toilets for 1,200 people, including dozens of children.”

The deportees may risk life-threatening situations or inhuman and degrading conditions in south-central Somalia. In Mogadishu, approximately 370,000 displaced people live in dire conditions in camps for people who have fled famine and violence elsewhere in the country, with inadequate security. Fighting continues in many parts of south-central Somalia. The Islamist armed group al-Shabaab still forcibly recruits adults and children.

Al-Shabaab bombings and other attacks in Mogadishu frequently target or otherwise kill and wound civilians. On February 13, al-Shabaab claimed responsibility for a car bombing that day outside Mogadishu’s airport, apparently targeting a UN convoy that killed at least six people.

Customary international law prohibits refoulement, the return of anyone to a place where their life or freedom would be threatened or where they would face persecution, torture, or inhuman or degrading treatment.On January 17, UNHCR issued guidelines on returns to Somalia and called on countries not to return anyone before interviewing them and ensuring they do not face the threat of persecution or other serious harm if returned. Both UNHCR and IOM say that Saudi Arabia has not made any such determination before sending the Somalis back.

“Somalia is still wracked by violence that kills and maims civilians, while hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people are barely surviving in insecure camps,” Simpson said. “Saudi Arabia and other countries where Somalis are living should closely examine any refugee claims and other claims for protection Somalis may have.”

Saudi Arabia has not ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention and does not have an asylum system. UNHCR, which has a small office in Riyadh, is not allowed to receive and review refugee claims, a process known as “Refugee Status Determination.” The Saudi authorities have no other procedures allowing Somalis or others who fear persecution or other harm in their home countries to seek protection in Saudi Arabia.

Major donors to UNHCR, including the European Union and the United States, should press Saudi Arabia to end its deportations of Somalis.

“The Saudi government is entitled to promote employment opportunities for its own citizens, but it needs to make sure it’s not sending people back to a life-threatening situation,” Simpson said. “Saudi Arabia has no excuse for not offering protection to some of the world’s most vulnerable people.”

Somalis Describe Detention Conditions in Saudi Arabia
Several of the deportees who spoke to Human Rights Watch researchers said they developed chronic health problems in detention in Saudi, including persistent coughing. Some said they saw children detained with their relatives and other adults. One said he was detained with approximately 30 children who were in their young teens and who had no caregiver.

A health worker in Mogadishu told Human Rights Watch that she attended a one-year-old boy in a Mogadishu hospital for several weeks. The baby had been detained with his father for a month before being deported and was suffering from diarrhea, malnutrition, and anemia.

Saladu, 35, said the Saudi authorities detained her for nine days with her two children, ages seven and nine, and her sister’s three children before deporting them: “The room we stayed in with 150 other women and children was extremely hot and there was no air conditioning. The children were sick. My son was vomiting and his stomach was very bloated. There were no mattresses, people just slept on the floor.”

IOM publicly said that many of the deportees are in poor health because of their prolonged detention in substandard conditions before they were deported. Some had suffered physical and psychological trauma or had respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia. IOM noted that “a significant number may have been subjected to ill-treatment.”

An IOM representative told Human Rights Watch that it plans to set up a facility at Mogadishu’s Aden Adde airport to provide emergency medical assistance, non-food items such as blankets, and water to deportees, though the services had not begun as of February 17. UNHCR told Human Rights Watch that its staff would be working with IOM to identify those at greatest risk of harm in Somalia.

Deportations of Undocumented Migrants in Saudi Arabia
The mass deportations of Somalis in January followed Saudi Arabia’s deportation of at least 12,000 Somalis to Mogadishu in 2013 and thousands of others in 2012, according to UNHCR.

In November, Saudi officials resumed a campaign that had started in April but had been suspended shortly thereafter, to locate and deport foreign workers considered to be violating local labor laws, including workers from Somalia, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, India, the Philippines, Nepal, Pakistan, and Yemen. The Saudi Interior Ministry announced on January 21 that it had deported more than 250,000 people since November.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 Yemeni workers deported from Saudi Arabia in November whose descriptions of detention conditions were similar to those of the Somali deportees. Most said there was overcrowding and insufficient food and drinkable water, and reported frequent beatings by prison guards. Five Ethiopian nationals told Human Rights Watch in November that thousands of foreign workers in Riyadh were held in makeshift detention facilities without adequate food and shelter before being deported.

Violence in Somalia
On January 17, UNHCR issued guidelines for factors countries should consider when assessing refugee claims by Somali nationals or other claims for protection based on international human rights law. On January 28, UNHCR issued a news release about the guidelines, appealing to all governments “to uphold their obligations” not to forcibly return anyone to Somalia unless they are convinced the person would not suffer persecution or other serious harm upon return.

UNHCR said that southern and central Somalia “remains a very dangerous place” and that it “consider[s] the options for Somalis to find protection from persecution or serious harm within Southern and Central Somalia to be limited.” The agency said that this “is especially true for large areas that remain under the control of Al-Shabaab,” which “prohibits the exercise of various types of freedoms and rights, especially affecting women” and uses “public whipping, amputation … and beheadings” as punishment.

UNHCR also said al-Shabaab attacks in Mogadishu that killed civilians had increased in 2013 and that the Somali authorities are “reported to be failing to provide much of [the] population with basic security.”

Human Rights Watch has also documented serious abuses by al-Shabaab against civilians, including forced recruitment of children and attacks on people perceived to support the Somali government. The armed group has targeted students, teachers, and school buildings and used schools as firing positions and the students inside as “human shields.”

In March 2013 Human Rights Watch reported on sexual violence and other abuses against displaced persons living in Mogadishu’s internally displaced persons camps.

In January 2013 the Somali government announced plans to relocate tens of thousands of displaced people in Mogadishu. These plans stalled primarily due to the government’s inability to provide basic protection in the planned relocation sites. According to UNHCR, almost 60,000 people were displaced in Somalia in the first nine months of 2013, bringing the total number of displaced to 1.1 million.

A February 13, 2014, Human Rights Watch report documents high levels of rape and sexual abuse against women and girls in Mogadishu in 2013, particularly among displaced women who are attacked inside and near camps for displaced people.

In November UNHCR, Kenya, and Somalia signed a tri-partite agreement setting out procedures to be followed to assist Somalis wishing to return to Somalia. The agreement emphasized that the principle of nonrefoulement needed to be scrupulously respected. UNHCR’s January news release said neither the agreement nor UNHCR’s possible future assistance to help reintegrate voluntarily returning Somali nationals from Kenya should in any way imply that UNHCR believes that Somalia is safe for everyone. The agency reported that 42,000 Somalis fled their country to seek asylum worldwide in 2013.

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