Hundreds of migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, held in appalling conditions in Saudi detention centers will be released and returned home. In December, Human Rights Watch research found that the workers were subjected to ill-treatment and deplorable conditions at a deportation center in Riyadh, the Saudi capital.
Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia agreed to repatriate 1,000 Ethiopian migrants per week after coming under mounting international pressure, according to state and international media. The first group of 296 detainees was flown home to Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, on January 27. Ethiopian state media released photos of the men as they descended from the plane.
Ethiopians travel to Saudi Arabia for economic reasons and to flee serious human rights abuses back home. Given the worsening human rights and security situation in Ethiopia, the Ethiopian government and its international partners should ensure that returning migrants receive medical treatment and adequate assistance to allow them to voluntarily return and reintegrate in their home areas.
In August 2020, Human Rights Watch was the first rights group to report on the ill-treatment of Ethiopian migrant detainees in Saudi Arabia following their expulsion from northern Yemen by Houthi forces. A few months later, in a series of phone calls with Human Rights Watch, migrants described their experiences of being held in unsanitary rooms with “up to 350 other migrants for months on end.”
Against the backdrop of Covid-19, Human Rights Watch joined other rights groups in calling for the immediate release of vulnerable detainees, many of whom told Human Rights Watch that contracting the virus was their “major concern.” With evidence of this abuse being picked up by global media, an investigation by the United Nations secretary-general and a vote of condemnation against Saudi Arabia in the European Union Parliament soon followed.
The repatriations will help these individuals, but further steps are needed. Saudi Arabia should ensure that detention of migrants is only used in exceptional circumstances, and as a last resort, especially during the pandemic. The Saudi government also needs to ensure that all detention facilities meet international standards, and take immediate steps to end abuse in its immigration detention centers. Fair asylum procedures should be urgently established for foreign nationals who may be at risk of persecution in their home countries.