ADDIS ABEBA – Ethiopians undertaking the perilous journey by boat across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden face exploitation and torture in Yemen by a network of trafficking groups, Human Rights Watch said on Thursday.
They also encounter abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia before being summarily forcibly deported back to Addis Ababa, it said.
Authorities in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have taken few if any measures to curb the violence migrants face, to put in place asylum procedures, or to check abuses perpetrated by their own security forces.
A combination of factors, including unemployment and other economic difficulties, drought, and human rights abuses have driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate through a perilous journey to reach Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and the neighboring Gulf States are favored destinations because of the availability of employment.
Most travel irregularly and do not have legal status once they reach Saudi Arabia.
“Many Ethiopians who hoped for a better life in Saudi Arabia face unspeakable dangers along the journey, including death at sea, torture, and all manners of abuses,” said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Ethiopian government, with the support of its international partners, should support people who arrive back in Ethiopia with nothing but the clothes on their back and nowhere to turn for help.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed humanitarian workers and diplomats as well as 12 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa who had been deported from Saudi Arabia between December 2018 and May 2019.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates as many as 500,000 Ethiopians were in Saudi Arabia when the Saudi government began a deportation campaign in November 2017.
The Saudi authorities have arrested, prosecuted, or deported foreigners who violate labor or residency laws or those who crossed the border irregularly.
About 260,000 Ethiopians, an average of 10,000 per month, were deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia between May 2017 and March 2019, according to the IOM, and deportations have continued.
Those interviewed described life-threatening journeys as long as 24 hours across the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to reach Yemen, in most cases in overcrowded boats, with no food or water, and prevented from moving around by armed smugglers.
“There were 180 people on the boat, but 25 died,” one man said. “The boat was in trouble and the waves were hitting it. It was overloaded and about to sink so the dallalas [brokers] picked some out and threw them into the sea, around 25.”
Interviewees said they were met and captured by traffickers upon arrival in Yemen.
Five said the traffickers physically assaulted them to extort payments from family members or contacts in Ethiopia or Somalia.
In many cases, relatives said they sold assets such as homes or land to obtain the ransom money.
After paying the traffickers or escaping, the migrants eventually made their way north to the Saudi-Yemen border, crossing in rural, mountainous areas.
Interviewees said Saudi border guards fired at them, killing and injuring others crossing at the same time, and that they saw dead bodies along the crossing routes.
Human Rights Watch said it has previously documented Saudi border guards shooting and killing migrants crossing the border.
“At the border, there are many bodies rotting, decomposing,” a 26-year-old man said: “It is like a graveyard.”
Six interviewees said they were apprehended by Saudi border police, while five successfully crossed the border but were later arrested.
They described abusive prison conditions in several facilities in southern Saudi Arabia, including inadequate food, toilet facilities, and medical care; lack of sanitation; overcrowding; and beatings by guards.
‘left to their own devices’
Planes returning people deported from Saudi Arabia typically arrive in Addis Ababa either at the domestic terminal or the cargo terminal of Bole International Airport.
Several humanitarian groups conduct an initial screening to identify the most vulnerable cases, with the rest left to their own devices, according to HRW.
“Saudi Arabia has summarily returned hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to Addis Ababa who have little to show for their journey except debts and trauma,” Horne said.
“Saudi Arabia should protect migrants on its territory and under its control from traffickers, ensure there is no collusion between its agents and these criminals, and provide them with the opportunity to legally challenge their detention and deportation,” Horne, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.