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Ethiopia 'abused Tigrayans' deported by Saudi Arabia

January 5, 2022

Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia should immediately release those they have detained without charge. It also wants Saudi Arabia to stop deportations.

In this picture from July 2021 a group of migrants deported from Saudi Arabia arrives back in Ethiopia
Ethiopians started in 2021 to repatriate around 40,000 of its nationals from Saudi ArabiaImage: Minasse Wondimu Hailu/AA/picture alliance

Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia have been arbitrarily detained and forcibly disappeared in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.

In a new report, the rights watchdog said officials were targeting people suspected of supporting Tigrayan forces fighting the central government.

They were being held in detention centers across the country and others were prevented from returning to Tigray.

"Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them," said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.

She also said that the conditions returning migrants have been held in have become progressively more restrictive and abusive.

This comes as Ethiopia's military is fighting forces from the northern region of Tigray for control of large parts of the country, in a war that broke out in late 2020. 

Deportees held against their will and abused

A 33-year-old woman, who was detained for days in Shone, told HRW: "We asked the federal police for food and water and the toilet, but we were beaten if we left our seats.''

"Bandits don't need food," police replied, according to her account.

HRW interviewed 23 Tigrayans— 20 men and three women — who were deported from Saudi Arabia in 2021.

Most of them were unable to speak with family members to let them know where they were.

"It amounts to enforced disappearance, which violates international law," Hardman wrote on Twitter.

A man looks on at a burned warehouse, allegedly looted by Tigray forces in Shewa Robit, Ethiopia
Tigrayan forces fighting the central government have withdrawn from neighbouring regions in northern EthiopiaImage: Amanuel Sileshi/AFP

The rights group was also able to identify at least eight centers housing Tigrayan deportees.

In one of those centers, in Semera, HRW said that people were only allowed to leave their rooms for 30 minutes in the morning and late afternoon for water and to use the toilet.

A 40-year-old man, who was deported from Saudi Arabia in August, said there were regular beatings: "They beat us with rubber sticks that they carry with them. Sometimes they beat us with wooden sticks. Every day, it is normal."

Two deportees told HRW police forced them to work on coffee farms in terrible conditions for no pay and little food.

Conditions in Saudi Arabia were not much better

There are about 6.3 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia including thousands of Ethiopian citizens who have migrated to Saudi Arabia to seek work over the years.

Those interviewed by HRW said they had spent from six months to six years in formal and informal detention facilities across Saudi Arabia.

"Deplorable detention conditions for migrants in Saudi Arabia is a longstanding problem," HRW said.

Humanitarian crisis unfolds in Ethiopia

What happens next?

In January 2021, Ethiopia's government said it would repatriate 40,000 of its nationals from Saudi Arabia. Nearly half of the returnees were Tigrayan.

HRW said Ethiopian authorities should immediately account for Tigrayans in custody and release those who haven't been charged with any crime.

It also called on Saudia Arabia to stop the deportation of all Tigrayans, given the risks they currently face on their return.

It has also urged the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to provide returning Tigrayans with international protection.

lo/msh (AFP, AP)