Undocumented Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia are paying bribes to Ethiopian consulate employees to secure their return home. Held in abhorrent conditions across detention centers in the middle eastern country since the onset of the pandemic, many of these migrants are now being asked to pay huge sums to ensure their safe returns.
According to informants Addis Zeybe spoke to, Ethiopian consulate employees are asking between two to four thousand Saudi Riyals - 26,000 to 52,000 Ethiopian Birr - to get imprisoned migrants back to Ethiopia.
A delegation, expected to work on alleviating the situation for migrants, is to head to KSA according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though no dates have been specified for their arrival.
While a repatriation process was brokered between Ethiopian and Saudi officials a year ago, conditions for returnees have since been complicated with the ongoing war in the country. Ethiopian authorities have arbitrarily detained, mistreated, and forcibly disappeared thousands of ethnic Tigrayans recently deported from Saudi Arabia according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Migrants in Saudi, where the second-highest number of Ethiopians reside, have accused the embassy employees of asking bribes for basic consulate services like returning undocumented migrants home, passport processing, and laissez-passer application; a procedure for issuing travel documents with limited validity.
“They are asking money to process even the simplest tasks,” said Hamza, a 37-year-old Ethiopian who migrated to Saudi over 15 years ago. Hamza who works as security personnel in a mall has evaded prison until now but is undocumented and without the means to pay the hefty bribes demanded by the consulting services, lives in a constant state of fear of what might happen next.
Like thousands of others who make the perilous journey by foot in search of better economic opportunities, Hamza himself reached Jeddah after nearly a month of journey on foot through Yemen, known as the Eastern route, which, follows a trail from Ethiopia through Yemen to Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries in the Middle East. He left his home to earn a better life, but as recent crackdowns intensify he wants to come back to Ethiopia as soon as possible.
“The police are searching houses they think Ethiopians live in, breaking down doors and going to shops and districts where Ethiopians frequent, including hospitals”, he said. “My friend repatriated from Saudi Arabia within a month after paying 3 thousand Riyal for an embassy employee. He is now in Ethiopia.”
The bribes, paid by the undocumented migrants to get home often involved the brokers and recruiters who were responsible for getting the migrants jobs there.
In the meantime, celebrities, religious leaders, and the ministry of foreign affairs is approaching leaders of KSA to find solutions according to Dina Mufti, spokesperson of the Ministry.
“The conflict in the country, and economic challenges and inflation, as well as internal displacements, are pushing people to work in other countries without proper documentation,” said Dr. Asnake Kefale, who has undertaken a number of researches on migration at Addis Ababa University. “This brings an opportunity for those smuggling undocumented migrants.”
Fewer migrants would be welcomed afterward to work in oil-dependent countries like Saudi since the country is undergoing an economic reform towards creating local jobs, he explained.
“The illegal migration is a long chain from individuals up to border guards,” said Dr. Asnake. “The government needs to step in and start negotiating with the agencies. This should be undertaken primarily as a diplomatic task involving religious leaders, diaspora community and civic societies.”
In 2013, the Ethiopian government had banned travel to middle eastern countries for work, when accounts of abuse had become rampant. The ban was lifted after five years.
Today, detained Ethiopians are suffering across prison cells in Saudi Arabia. An investigative report published by The Telegraph in 2020 revealed that migrants were dying while in detention from heatstroke, lack of food and water, and getting beaten by guards. The report also includes stories of hopeless migrants, some of whom commit suicide inside prison.
“We cannot ask why Saudi Arabia’s government is doing this to us,” said Hamza, who fears a similar fate. “But we can ask our government to look out for us.”
More than 30,000 migrants returned from KSA from late June to early July last year, following a bilateral agreement between the two governments But many more still remain.
(Name of migrant has been changed for security purposes)