Ethiopian authorities have arbitrarily detained, mistreated, and forcibly disappeared thousands of ethnic Tigrayans recently deported from Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday. Saudi Arabia should stop holding Tigrayans in abhorrent conditions and deporting them to Ethiopia, and instead help the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to provide them with international protection.
Ethiopian authorities have transferred Tigrayan deportees from Saudi Arabia to reception centers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where some were being unlawfully held. The Ethiopian authorities have also apprehended Tigrayan deportees at checkpoints on the roads to Tigray or at the Semera airport in the Afar region and transferred them to detention facilities in Afar or southern Ethiopia.
“Tigrayan migrants who have experienced horrific abuse in Saudi custody are being locked up in detention facilities upon returning to Ethiopia,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi Arabia should offer protection to Tigrayans at risk, while Ethiopia should release all arbitrarily detained Tigrayan deportees.”
Various factors, including unemployment and other economic difficulties, drought, and human rights abuses, have driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate over the past decade, traveling by boat across the Red Sea and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia.
In January 2021, the Ethiopian government announced it would cooperate in the repatriation of 40,000 of its nationals detained in Saudi Arabia, beginning with a 1,000 a week. Forty percent of the returnees from Saudi Arabia between November 2020 and June 2021 were Tigrayan.
Deportations increased significantly between late June and mid-July, with over 30,000 reportedly deported. The surge in repatriations coincided with an increase in profiling, arbitrary detentions, and forcible disappearances of Tigrayans by Ethiopian authorities in Addis Ababa following the withdrawal of Ethiopian federal forces from the Tigray region and an expansion of the Tigray conflict.
Human Rights Watched interviewed 23 Tigrayans – 20 men and 3 women – who were deported from Saudi Arabia between December 2020 and September 2021, with the majority deported between June and August 2021, and subsequently detained in Ethiopia between April and September. Deportees were held in facilities throughout Ethiopia: in centers in Addis Ababa; in Semera, Afar region; in Shone, Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ Region; and in Jimma, Oromia region. Human Rights Watch sent letters with queries to the Ethiopian National Disaster Risk Management Commission, the Federal Police Commission, the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington, DC, the Saudi Arabian Human Rights Council, and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, but has received no responses.
As Ethiopian authorities conducted mass sweeps and arrests of Tigrayans in Addis Ababa in July, some deportees interviewed said that after initially being allowed freedom of movement in the Addis centers they were not permitted to leave. Other deportees who tried to make their way home to Tigray were apprehended and forcibly disappeared at regional detention facilities where Federal and Afar regional police assaulted them or beat other Tigrayan deportees with rubber or wooden rods.
Deportees said that conditions became progressively more restrictive and abusive. In the Semera center in mid-September, a new Afar security force, wearing gray and black uniforms, arrived and beat deportees, purportedly because detainees spent too much time in the toilets. “Two days ago, they [Afar special police] came and beat many of us,” said a 23-year-old deportee. “I am injured, and my leg and head are swollen. They beat us severely. They said, ‘You belong to the TPLF [Tigray People’s Liberation Front].’”
Most interviewees said they were unable to speak with family members to let them know where they were, and some believed their relatives still thought they were in Saudi Arabia. All said the federal police failed to provide any legal justification for their arrest and subsequent detention.
The interviewees said that before Saudi Arabia deported them, they spent from six months to six years in formal and informal detention facilities across Saudi Arabia, including in Abha, Hadda, Jizan, and Jeddah. They experienced beatings and overcrowding, and uniformly described terrible sanitation and inadequate bedding, food, water, and medical care. Deplorable detention conditions for migrants in Saudi Arabia is a longstanding problem.
They were permitted no time outside and suffered serious skin problems from the unhygienic conditions. All said that prison guards beat them or other detainees with plastic or rubber-coated metal rods, including if they complained about conditions. They said guards would remove them from their cells, force them to strip naked, and stand or kneel as they were beaten.
Nearly all interviewees said that Saudi authorities had arrested and detained them because of their irregular immigration status, but that the authorities never provided legal justifications for their detention nor allowed them to get a lawyer or challenge their detention. Prolonged detention without access to judicial review is considered arbitrary and violates international law.
The Ethiopian authorities’ detention of thousands of Tigrayan deportees from Saudi Arabia without informing their families of their arrest or whereabouts amounts to enforced disappearance, which also violates international law. The authorities should immediately account for all Tigrayans in custody and release all those who have not been credibly charged with a crime. All those detained should have immediate access to legal counsel and their families.
Saudi Arabia should halt the deportation of all Tigrayans to Ethiopia because of the risk they face of persecution. Customary international law prohibits sending people to a country where they face a real risk of persecution or torture. Saudi Arabia should provide UNHCR with full and unfettered access to detained migrants to assess any claim for refugee status and work with UNHCR to facilitate the resettlement of Tigrayan refugees.
“Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them,” Hardman said. “Saudi Arabia should stop contributing to this abuse by ending the forced return of Tigrayans to Ethiopia and allowing them to seek asylum or resettlement in third countries.”
In November 2020, an armed conflict started between the Ethiopian federal government and its allied forces against forces affiliated with the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). Since then, rights groups and the media have documented numerous abuses, including large-scale massacres, indiscriminate attacks, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests, forcible expulsions, pillage, destruction of civilian property, and blocking of humanitarian relief.
On November 4, Ethiopia’s parliament passed a six-month nationwide state of emergency, which grants the government far-reaching authority to arrest and detain people based on “reasonable suspicion” of cooperation with “terrorist groups” without a court warrant or judicial oversight. In May, Ethiopia’s parliament had designated the TPLF as a terrorist group.
Saudi Arabia Detention of Ethiopian Migrants
Official Saudi statistics indicate that over 6.3 million migrants are formally working in the private sector in Saudi Arabia, especially in energy and service jobs. Saudi Arabia has carried out regular sweeps of undocumented migrant workers, including major arrest campaigns beginning in November 2013 and August 2017. The Interior Ministry indicated that between August 12 and December 8, 2021, the authorities detained over 265,000 people in violation of residency, labor, and border security laws.
Human Rights Watch in 2019 identified approximately 10 prisons and detention centers in Saudi Arabia in which migrants were held for various periods in overcrowded, unsanitary, and abusive conditions. In August 2020, three detention centers were identified in Jizan and Jeddah provinces where thousands of Ethiopian migrants were being held in abysmal conditions after being expelled from northern Yemen the previous April. In December 2020, Human Rights Watch identified a deportation center in Riyadh holding hundreds of migrant workers in degrading conditions, most of them Ethiopians.
Tigrayan deportees interviewed uniformly described horrendous conditions in formal and informal detention centers in the Saudi Arabian cities of Abha, Hadda, Jizan, and Jeddah. All said the Saudi authorities kept them in cramped, unsanitary rooms with hundreds of other migrants for months and years on end. Most said they had been detained for over a year. They did not have enough room to all lie down at the same time, so some slept during the day and others at night. All said either that guards had assaulted them or that they had witnessed guards beating other detainees.