Caves become haven for Ethiopian workers escaping deportation in Saudi Arabia

Caves in remote areas of Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, have become a haven for Ethiopian workers seeking to escape deportation amidst the deteriorating humanitarian and health conditions, reports ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies. 

The London-based think tank has documented dire conditions in which dozens of Ethiopian workers are suffering while trying to escape deportation, posing a grave threat to their lives.

ImpACT International has viewed video clips documenting Ethiopian workers hiding in caves and desolate mountains in various areas of Riyadh, such as the Mahdia neighborhood, to be safe from Saudi police.

On 3 May, Saudi police announced the arrest of 1,467 persons of different nationalities who they said are "violating the residence and border security systems" in Riyadh.

"Fifty-three violators of our residence system have been arrested, all of whom are Ethiopians, and legal measures have been taken against them," stated Lieutenant Colonel Shaker bin Sulaiman al-Tuwaijri, media spokesperson for the Riyadh police.

Meanwhile, residents are under threat from the novel coronavirus, ImpACT International points out, adding that this puts workers' safety at high risk.

This comes despite the fact that the United Nations stressed on 14 April that Saudi Arabia's deportation of migrant workers to Ethiopia increases the risk of spreading the coronavirus and urged Riyadh to stop deportation for the time being.

Mahlet, 23, reported to ImpACT that the Saudi authorities accused her of being an illegal migrant, despite the fact that she has a work visa. She added that the Saudi police did not even contact her employer to verify her legal status when she was arrested and detained with the purpose of deportation.

 "Since last March, the International Organization for Migration has registered 2,870 Ethiopian returnees, all but 100 of whom were sent back from Saudi Arabia," IOM spokesman Alemayehu Seifeselassie said. Ethiopian authorities confirmed the large-scale deportations of migrants.

 "Since last March, the International Organization for Migration has registered 2,870 Ethiopian returnees, all but 100 of whom were sent back from Saudi Arabia," IOM spokesman Alemayehu Seifeselassie said.

Some migrant workers who were deported from Saudi Arabia were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19, reports Liya Tadesse, Ethiopia's health minister. However, she did not disclose any statistics.

According to an internal United Nations memo, Saudi Arabia is expected to deport some 200,000 Ethiopian migrants.

In the past, Ethiopian workers complained of being subjected to deportation campaigns, with no consideration of their humanitarian and safety situations, in addition to having their property confiscated.

Several human rights organizations have monitored Saudi Arabia's deportation of Ethiopian migrants, most of whom are workers, since 2017, when authorities intensified deportation of undocumented migrants.

While the number of Ethiopian workers in Saudi Arabia remains unknown, it was believed that before the deportation campaign, it had reached about half a million persons, most of whom worked in low-skilled jobs with poor wages, such as construction and domestic labor. Most of those workers arrived in the kingdom via the Red Sea crossing from Djibouti to Yemen, fleeing poverty and unemployment.

Saudi Arabia remains one of few countries that has not ratified the international treaties relating to migrant detention, blurring the line between migrant detention and imprisonment. Furthermore, human rights organizations are not allowed to investigate the humanitarian conditions of migrants detained in prisons and deportation centers.

ImpACT International viewed the complaints of Ethiopian workers who were forcibly deported to their country and who reported they were subjected to ill-treatment during their detention in the Jizan region, in southern of Saudi Arabia. The workers accuse Saudi authorities of detaining and deporting minors, despite the fact that the kingdom has signed and ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that children should not be detained due to immigration status.

"The Ethiopian government works with the relevant Saudi bodies to respect and protect the dignity, rights and safety of Ethiopian citizens, and to ensure that everyone is treated safely, even at home," claims Berhanu Abera, overseas employment director at the Ethiopian Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs.

ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies calls on Saudi authorities to stop mass expulsions of Ethiopian and other foreign workers and ensure that any deportations are based on individual assessments, including the need for international protection—especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Saudi government has authority to deport undocumented migrants, international humanitarian law requires it to treat them with dignity and avoid violence, including investigating violations by Saudi security forces and holding perpetrators accountable.

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