Last week, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that Saudi Arabia had rounded up 12,000 Somalis and expelled them to their war-torn and lawless homeland, without giving them any opportunity to ask for asylum. IOM said that the Saudis would deport another 30,000 during the next few weeks.
Sitting at my desk in Washington, DC, I was immediately struck by the large numbers being forcibly returned to a place where their lives or freedom would almost certainly be at risk. Doing so is refoulement, a violation of international law. We knew the numbers were in the tens of thousands, important for understanding the scale of a violation, but we knew little about the people behind those numbers.
I asked my Human Rights Watch colleagues in Mogadishu, Laetitia Bader and Samer Muscati, to seek out some of the deportees.
As I read their interview notes, the numbers suddenly receded, replaced by the clarity of an individual person: Sadiyo, who worked as a domestic worker in a Saudi household before being detained with her two small children. Throughout her 15 days of detention and deportation she was without the support of her husband, who had not yet been arrested. He is now facing deportation as well.
The ordeal was particularly difficult for Sadiyo because she was in her ninth month of pregnancy.
Standing in line for deportation at the Jedda airport, Sadiyo’s three-year-old son started scampering around. A police woman got angry and hit Sadiyo on the back with a police baton. As she boarded the plane to Mogadishu, Sadiyo began feeling intense pain. As the plane took off, the pain intensified and she went into labor. Sadiyo gave birth on the plane cabin’s floor.
“I am still feeling the pain from the blow on my back,” she told Laetitia in Mogadishu. “ I haven’t received any medical treatment, my son and I went to hospital two days ago to clean up his umbilical cord.”
No country, Saudi Arabia included, is permitted to round up tens of thousands of people and collectively expel them to a country wracked by violence without giving them any opportunity to seek protection.
But beyond principles, beyond statistics, there is simply one person’s suffering, and the failure of a government to treat that person with basic decency.