The current outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has restricted global mobility, whilst heightening the risk of exploitation to vulnerable populations. Restricting human mobility is an effective strategy used to control disease spread. However, many of these restrictions have brought chaos and despair for many people that have been working in various gulf countries legally or illegally. Especially in Saudi Arabia migrants have been perceived as possible COVID-19 carriers. Weeks after the World Health Organization’s March 11 declaration of a pandemic, armed Houthi rebels in northern Yemen chased off thousands of Ethiopian migrants to the border of neighboring Saudi Arabia, killing dozens as they fled, according to testimony collected by Human Rights Watch.
Currently Ethiopia's consul general in Jeddah says Dozens of prisons in Saudi Arabia are holding thousands of Ethiopian migrants, with one facility housing as many as 16,000 people. Recent media reports have detailed the alleged conditions Ethiopian migrants have endured in Saudi Arabia as the kingdom attempts to control its coronavirus outbreak.
The Ethiopian migrants are among millions of foreigners, mostly from South Asia and Africa, who sought jobs in the oil-rich kingdom. As the London-based Sunday Telegraph noted in an August 30 report on detention conditions, some 6.6 million worked there as of June 2019, largely in low-wage positions involving domestic work, construction or other physical labor.
Riyadh deported nearly 3,000 Ethiopians in the first 10 days of April Almost 200,000 others were scheduled to follow suit, but the United Nations — in an internal memo leaked by Reuter’s news agency on April 13 — asked the Saudis to suspend mass deportations to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.
In August, a document showed that Riyadh and Addis Ababa had agreed to allow migrants to purchase their own tickets from Ethiopian Airlines for their return home - an unaffordable prospect for most of the migrants.
Detainees say there are a significant number of pregnant women in detention. Almost every detainee Amnesty International interviewed had seen at least one representative of the Ethiopian embassy or consulate during their detention. They reported that Ethiopian officials had seen detention conditions first-hand, and that they were able to speak with officials.
While Saudi Arabia has promised to launch an investigation into the allegations amid pressure from the UN and human rights groups, Ethiopia’s Foreign Ministry said in a September 3 news release that 3,500 of its citizens had been repatriated from Saudi Arabia from April to July.
However the Ethiopian government as the main party responsible for ensuring the wellbeing and safe return of Ethiopian workers stranded in the country despite the few thousand Ethiopians it managed to repatriate is mainly criticized for failing to protect its citizens.
While Addis Zeybe asked the spokesperson of the ministry of foreign affairs Ambassador Dina Mufti on why the government is not taking drastic measures to repatriate the Ethiopians that are suffering in persons he says there is more than just taking planes and repatriating them from the Arab kingdom. According to him, there are a lot of prisoners from neighboring countries as well and the embassy is working on filtering out Ethiopian citizens that are situated in various jails across the country. Dina says this process alone is taking a lot of time in addition to restriction measures on movement Saudi Arabia put to control the spread of the virus in the country.
He however said that the repatriation process is not moving swiftly as it should. For that Ambassador Dina says there are a lot of factors that are hindering the process from lack of documentation to lack of resources on the government’s side to other issues that create obstacles in the repatriation process.
While replying to the kind of diplomatic talks the Ethiopian government is having with Saudi officials to maintain the right of citizens while they are in detention centers he explains that talks are underway with the authorities to ensure the rights of citizens are respected and they are treated well in the centers.
He also added that people are politicizing the detention of Ethiopians in Saudi cells to use the issue for political benefit adding that is not the way to benefit Ethiopians in need of assistance.
But even the spokesperson stated that the Ethiopian government is holding talks with Saudi authorities to ensure the detainees are treated in humane ways. Reports that circulated on various Medias stated that the Saudi officials are cracking down on the migrants to the point that they are shutting the fans says the migrants who are talking to the media. Some even stated that there were raids and beatings of the detainees on allegations that they are smuggling phones and talking to the press about their situations in the detention centers.
On the other hand Ethiopia owns the biggest airline in the world, an airline that even became profitable in the time of a global pandemic. Even in recent weeks the airline has been observed giving its services on hostage exchange between the warring parties in Yemen. With that in mind Addis Zeybe called the airlines to talk to them about what they are doing to assist their fellow citizens in the time of humanitarian crises. But the airline hasn't responded to the inquiries made by Addis Zeybe on the matter.
Addis Zeybe has also reached out to various institutions and the Ministry of Foregin affairs to get access to the immigrants in Saudi Arabia or those that returned to their country but weren't able to get in contact with them. With this in mind Addis Zeybe will accept any leads from our readers after the publishing of these reports.
While there are various explanations given by the relevant stakeholders about the delay of repatriations Ethiopian migrants. The 2020 report by Amnesty International yesterday has reported the deaths of three migrants who were held in a detention camp in Saudi Arabia. The victims—men from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen—were all housed at the Al-Dayer detention center. Since 2017.