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The Plight of Ethiopian Refugees in the Middle East

The Plight of Ethiopian Refugees in the Middle East

Nadia Hardman is a Refugee and Migrant Rights Researcher with Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading human rights organizations. She reflects with The Reporter’s Samuel Getachew on a recent report on the worsening situation Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi Arabia are under, on HRW’s latest on Ethiopian migrants in North Yemen and more.

Human Rights Watch is no stranger to Ethiopia. Tell me about some of its work?

Human Rights Watch investigates and reports on abuses happening in all corners of the world. We are roughly 450 people of 70 plus nationalities who are country experts, lawyers, journalists and others who work to protect the most at risk, from vulnerable minorities and civilians in wartime, to refugees and children in need. We direct our advocacy towards governments, armed groups and businesses, pushing them to change or enforce their laws, policies and practices.

The new report from HRW made a list of crimes being committed against Ethiopian detainees, including allegations of torture, killings and crowded imprisonment in the midst of COVID – 19 pandemics. What are the highlights of the report?

I interviewed 9 people – 7 Ethiopians currently in detention in Riyadh and 2 Indians who were returned to India. All described horrific conditions in the deportation center where they were held pending deportation. Severe overcrowding, limited access to toilets, no shower facilities and inadequate food. The space is so tight that migrants have to take it in turn to sleep with some people not sleeping at all. All expressed fears of Covid-19 and said many detainees were exhibiting symptoms but there has been no effort to introduce measures against contracting the Coronavirus. On the contrary, migrants told me that when they asked for medical care, they were beaten with rubber coated metal rods.

One detainee said he witnessed 3 cases of unlawful killings, where detainees were beaten so badly, they died as a result. We understand there are a number of nationalities being held at the center with those from sub-Saharan Africa kept together and south Asians in another room. People said Ethiopians were the majority.

The report calls for the Saudi government to release the detainees. Tell me about that.

Under international law, immigration detention is an exceptional measure of last resort. There must be a legitimate reason to hold the migrants in immigration detention; otherwise, they should be immediately released. Priority should, of course, be given to the most vulnerable. It should immediately end any torture and other ill-treatment, and ensure that detention conditions meet international standards.

What has been the reaction of the Ethiopian authorities to these allegations?  

We do not know the reaction of the Ethiopian authorities to our latest report. We understand that the Ethiopians are well aware of the existence of this deportation center and the conditions as members of the Consulate have visited the center in Riyadh together with other detention centers across Saudi Arabia, containing Ethiopian migrants.

There are many people who observe what is happening in Saudi Arabia, a rich nation that can really accommodate the needs of the thousands of migrants stranded and in harsh and difficult conditions with little safety net in disappointment as it can well afford to provide protection to the many people that are languishing inside its temporary prisons. What is your take on it?

It is astounding that Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world is detaining migrants in these abhorrent conditions. It has no excuse. It has all the resources it needs to bring detention centers in line with international standards.

When you speak to the Ethiopians held in Saudi as well as the Asians who are stranded there, what similarities, if any, in their complaints did you see?

When speaking to the Ethiopian and South Asian migrants, the similarities in their treatment is striking - the same overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. We documented allegations of beatings in both cases, similarly with rubber coated metal rods. It seems no nationality escapes the brutality of the conditions.

Despite much reporting and the risk associated with illegal migration and the conditions of migrants in the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, many Ethiopians continue to head in that direction. What must be done to prevent such illegal migration from happening? 

As an organization, we do not advocate either way of the prevention of illegal migration – rather for the rights-based treatment of migrants everywhere. 

The last report your organization did on Ethiopia was on those Ethiopians who were forced out from Yemen on to Saudi Arabia as they were wrongly scapegoated for spreading COVID-19. Can you tell me about that report?

The last report focused on thousands of migrants living in a migrant settlement area called al ghar in North Yemen. They were compelled under lethal force by the Houthis and forced to the border with Saudi Arabia. They were shot and (some) killed by Saudi border guards before being allowed into the nation. They were taken to centers in Jizan – again horrifying conditions of overcrowding and scarcity of food and water.

We now understand some of these people have been repatriated by the majority and remain languishing in the detention facilities there. In all cases - in Jizan and in Riyadh, we have identified the centers using satellite technology.

Last question I have for you is, what is your take on the recent wave of conflicts that are happening in Ethiopia?

For that, I would like to refer you to my colleagues who are working on the Horn of Africa file but related to this, we have previously released the following statement.

“UNHCR should have complete access to assess any claim for refugee status and should also assess whether any organized return facilitated by the UN’s humanitarian agencies is voluntary. The Ethiopians interviewed by Human Rights Watch all expressed concern about returning to a country currently facing a rights crisis as well as conflict in the Eastern region of Tigray which has resulted in mass displacement into neighboring Sudan"