Ethiopia: Feature - Still Suffering, Detained Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia Plead With the Government to Intervene

Addis Abeba — January 20, 2022 - In January, thousands of Ethiopian diaspora mostly from the United States and Europe diaspora began arriving in Ethiopia responding to the government's call for a "great Ethiopian homecoming" for celebrations of Ethiopian Christmas and Timket (Epiphany) festivals. Amid all of this, Addis Standard received several reports of detainees held in inhumane conditions in Saudi Arabia prisons.

An earlier Addis Standard investigation into the conditions of Ethiopians detained in Saudi Arabia's prisons revealed that a crackdown on illegal migrants targeted many Ethiopians. Testimonies offered via multiple calls from detainees inside the conservative kingdom prisons revealed that the crackdown continued. According to the detainees, nursing mothers, infants, and pregnant women are suffering in the prison without sufficient food, medicine, and a proper place to sleep, and urged the government to intervene. The detainees complained about Embassy officials and Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) officials abandoning their responsibilities and ignoring their pleas.

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"More than 150 people are held in our cell," said Hayat, a mother of one who traveled to Saudi Arabia from the Amhara region's Oromia Special Zone. She added," They don't provide us with sufficient food, they give us a loaf of bread in the morning and another one in the evening. In addition, we don't have enough medicines or blankets."

"Life in this prison is horrible," said Hayat, who was arrested while returning from the hospital where she was receiving mental health treatment. She added, "I have an eye condition and I am not getting the proper medication. I pleaded with them while being arrested to allow the chance to buy my medicine but they refused and said that I will be provided with medicine inside the prison."

Earlier this month, Ambassador Dina Mufti, the spokesperson of the MoFA insisted that the Great Homecoming Challenge was for all Ethiopians across the world. He stated that the conditions of Ethiopians who reside in the middle east are deteriorating from time to time. The Ambassador also said, "There has been relentless pressure on Ethiopia from these countries lately and the situation should thoroughly be investigated." The ambassador admitted that the government failed to fully engage to help our stranded citizens in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries due to limited resources and security issues the country is facing.

Ziyada is a mother of one and is originally from the war-torn Tigray region. She spoke a great deal about the inhumane conditions inside these prisons. "My daughter and I have been in this prison for eight months now," said Ziyada before adding, "Besides not getting sufficient meals, we became vulnerable to communicable diseases since they are holding close to 200 people in a single room." Ziyada, like thousands of others who entered Saudi Arabia illegally searching for a better life, shared the common experience experienced by thousands of migrants and the continued failure by the diplomatic outposts in the kingdom to assist and protect citizens.

In an attempt to get a deeper understanding of the situation in Saudi prisons Addis Standard spoke to Nebiyu Sirak, a journalist and a community advocate who lived and was active in Saudi Arabia. He complimented the testimonies by detainees about the inhumane conditions they were kept in and argued that there is a campaign targeting Ethiopians. He said, "Not all the detainees are illegal migrants. There are also some legal migrants who are detained without any due notice to later be identified as being legal migrants, a practice I would argue is not acceptable, to say the least."

According to Nebiyu, more than half a million Ethiopians are estimated to be living in Saudi Arabia both legally and illegally of which more than 100,000 of them are now suffering in the kingdom's prisons. He said, "Outside the prison, an estimated 200,000 Ethiopian migrants are in danger." Nebiyu spoke about the year-long government initiative that resulted in the return of more than 42,000 illegal migrants but argued that none provided a lasting solution. He added, "We know of different initiatives including sending a delegation to Saudi from MoFA, but it remains a fact that the government failed at stopping the harassment and sufferings of its citizens. The large-scale crackdown continued and remaining citizens remain under the threat of harassment and abuse." Nebiyu accused the Ethiopian diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia of failing citizens and explained that the uncoordinated efforts resulted in diplomats with diplomatic immunity and their families falling victims to the crackdown.

Legal migrants who have fallen victims to the large-scale crackdown also complained of the worsening conditions inside prisons like Alemu, a father of four originally from Bahir Dar. He spoke to Addis Standard via phone from the detention center near Jeddah. He said, "For the last nine months no official from the Ethiopian General Consulate in Jeddah visited us. We are still wearing what we wore on the day we were arrested." Alemu, like many legal migrants, was the breadwinner for his family, he complained that since his imprisonment, his family in Ethiopia suffered from the loss of income. He pleaded with the government to return them home.

The crackdown spares no one according to Ahmed, another legal migrant whose family members are detained. He expressed dismay at how the government is undermining the issue of Ethiopians in Saudi. Ahmed said, "I observed that the weekly reports published by MoFA about the detainees do not show the reality on the ground," he added, "The reports are politically oriented and do not pay attention to the human rights question of detained citizens. When questions are raised about the conditions of detainees, the government repeatedly talks about efforts to return them." Ahmed complained that despite being a legal migrant, he remains under the threat of detention " The situation is bad. I am outside the prison but my brother and sister who have their own families back in Ethiopia are suffering in prisons. I can not provide any kind of support for them as I fear for my own safety."

Although the Ministry of Foreign affairs talks about the issue of stranded Ethiopian citizens in Saudi Arabia at consecutive press briefings in the past couple of weeks, it rarely offered more than pledges to resume repatriating Ethiopian nationals 'as soon as possible.' The ministry justified delays in the process of repatriating Ethiopian nationals by other 'top priorities' that the government was supposed to address timely. Last week the ministry's spokesperson said, "A delegation has been established to facilitate the repatriation and this team will soon leave for Saudi Arabia to bring the stranded citizens back home."

The latest response from the MoFA came at this week's biweekly briefing, where Ambassador Dina told reporters that the said delegation team is waiting for a visa to leave for Saudi Arabia.

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