Three Dead In Saudi Detention Camps For Ethiopian Migrants

A 2020 report by Amnesty International 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 centre. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has been cracking down on illegal immigrants, including the nearly 500,000 Ethiopian migrants estimated to be residing illegally in the country. Ethiopian migrants often travel to Saudi Arabia in search of a better life, with many of them working in Yemen to make enough money to cross the border. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Yemen expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, with many getting caught up in border skirmishes between the Houthi rebels and Saudi Arabian forces. Once in Saudi Arabia, migrants were detained by security forces, stripped of belongings, then transferred to prisons in Jizan, Jeddah, and Mecca. An additional 2,000 Ethiopian migrants remain stranded on the Yemeni side of the border without access to food, water, or health care.

Amnesty International interviewed twelve Ethiopian migrants being detained, who all reported appalling conditions, including overcrowding and a lack of sanitation, water, and healthcare. Videos and satellite photos corroborated these allegations. At Al-Dayer detention centre and Jizan central prison, detainees described sharing a cell with 350 other people and being made to urinate on the floor of their cells, close to where they sleep. Larger prisons with sufficient water to shower—such as in Mecca and Jeddah—are not providing soap and guards at Al-Dayer are only turning on water taps for a short time per day. The lack of sanitation, combined with issues of overcrowding, could result in the mass transmission of COVID-19 if it were to enter the detention centres. Disease is already reported to be rampant—including diarrhea, skin infections, and yellow fever—and detainees report that they are not being treated for illness or injury.

Amnesty International has verified through consistent eyewitness testimonies the deaths of three men. An additional four bodies were reported, as well as two attempted suicides and the deaths of two babies and three toddlers, although these deaths are unable to be independently verified. All detained migrant workers interviewed were aware that deaths had occurred, and many said they had seen bodies themselves. They also stated that Ethiopian officials have visited the detention centres and witnessed the conditions firsthand, but that no action has been taken. In fact, three detainees reported that Ethiopian diplomats warned them to cease complaining about the conditions entirely.

Before the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia was deporting 10,000 Ethiopian migrants per month, but Ethiopia requested this be stopped due to insufficient space to quarantine new arrivals. Amnesty International found that at least 34,000 Ethiopian migrants have returned to their home country between April and September 2020, including nearly 4000 residing in Saudi Arabia. This illustrates that while the pandemic has complicated travel, it is still possible to repatriate Ethiopian migrants, should both governments commit to doing so. Tsion Teklu, a state minister at Ethiopia’s foreign ministry, reported that the total number of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi detention centres has decreased from over 16,000 earlier this year.

Amnesty International is calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately release all detainees, prioritising those who are most vulnerable such as children and pregnant women. They are simultaneously urging that detention conditions be improved immediately—with detainees ensured sufficient access to food, water, sanitation, health care, and clothing—and that any deaths are investigated and those responsible held accountable.

Kailey Ouellette