“This is worse than COVID-19”, Ethiopian migrants describe “hell” in Saudi prisons

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An investigation by Amnesty International has exposed horrifying new details about the treatment of Ethiopian migrants detained in Saudi Arabia. Since March, Huthi authorities in Yemen have expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers and their families to Saudi Arabia, where they are now being held in life-threatening conditions.

Amnesty International said it interviewed detainees who described a catalogue of cruelties at the hands of Saudi Arabian authorities, including being chained together in pairs, forced to use their cell floors as toilets, and confined 24 hours a day in unbearably crowded cells.  Amnesty International documented the deaths of three adults in detention, based on consistent eyewitness testimonies. Other detainees reported at least four more deaths; while it was not possible to independently corroborate these claims, the prevalence of disease and the lack of food, water and health care indicates the true number of deaths could be much higher.

“Thousands of Ethiopian migrants, who left their homes in search of a better life, have instead faced unimaginable cruelty at every turn. Confined to filthy cells, surrounded by death and disease, the situation is so dire that at least two people have attempted to take their own lives,” said Marie Forestier, Researcher and Advisor on Refugee and Migrant Rights at Amnesty International.

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“Pregnant women, babies and small children are held in these same appalling conditions, and three detainees said they knew of children who had died. We are urging the Saudi authorities to immediately release all arbitrarily detained migrants, and significantly improve detention conditions before more lives are lost.”

Amnesty International is also calling on the Ethiopian government to urgently facilitate the voluntary repatriation and reintegration of Ethiopian nationals, and to press the Saudi government to improve detention conditions in the interim.

Amnesty International said it interviewed 12 detained Ethiopian migrants via a messaging app between 24 June 2020 and 31 July 2020. Their allegations were corroborated by videos, photos and satellite imagery analyzed by the organization’s Crisis Evidence Lab. All names have been changed.

Forced into a nightmare

Until March 2020 thousands of Ethiopian migrants were working in northern Yemen, earning money to pay for their passage to Saudi Arabia. When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, Huthi authorities began ordering migrant workers to go to the border, where they reportedly became caught in crossfire between Saudi and Huthi forces.

Amnesty was not able to corroborate reports of shootings, but most detainees said they had crossed the border under fire.

In Saudi Arabia migrants were apprehended by Saudi security forces, who confiscated their belongings and in some cases beat them. The majority were then transferred to Al-Dayer detention centre. From there, most were transferred to Jizan central prison and then on to prisons in Jeddah and Mecca; others have remained in Jizan central prison for over five months. According to the International Organization for Migration, approximately 2,000 Ethiopians remain stranded on the Yemeni side of the border, without food, water or health care.

Sick and injured, denied health care

All interviewees said they were appallingly treated from the moment of their apprehension by Saudi authorities. Conditions are especially dire in Al-Dayer centre and Jizan central prison, where detainees reported sharing cells with, on average, 350 people. Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab has verified videos which support these claims.

Detainees reported that gunshot wounds sustained at the border were the most pressing health issue at Al-Dayer, and said Saudi authorities refused to provide adequate treatment, leading to potentially life-threatening infections.

At Al-Dayer there are no toilets for detainees, and they are forced to use a corner of the cell as a toilet space.

Zenebe, 26, said:

“It’s hell, I’ve never seen something like this in my life….There are no toilets. We urinate on the ground, not far from where we sleep. Sometimes we had to walk on it.”

All detainees said illness was rife in the facilities, reporting skin infections, diarrhoea, and yellow fever.

Hagos, who was detained in Jizan central prison for five months, said some detainees became so weak they had to be carried to the toilets, which were overflowing and barely functioning.

Despite the intense heat of the summer months, water is frequently insufficient, especially in Al Dayer centre where guards reportedly only turn on the taps for short periods every day. 

All those interviewed described lack of sanitation as a problem. As their belongings were confiscated at the border, detainees have only the clothes they were wearing when they left Yemen, and in Al Dayer and Jizan prison there are no showers. Even in Mecca and Jeddah prisons, where there is enough water for showers, detainees are not provided with soap. These unsanitary conditions are especially alarming in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deaths in detention

Two detainees reported personally seeing the dead bodies of three people – an Ethiopian man, a Yemeni man and a Somali man – in Al-Dayer centre.

However, all those interviewed said they knew of people who had died in detention, and four people said they had seen bodies themselves.

Freweyni, 25, described the death of a 15-year-old boy at Al-Dayer:

“He was sleeping on the ground, covered with clothes. He was very weak. He urinated while sleeping. A boy was taking care of him. […] We shouted and the guards came in to take him….Four days later, I saw this boy lying on the ground outside. He was dead. I saw another body next to him.”

Two people told Amnesty International they had prevented cellmates from taking their own lives in Jizan central prison and Jeddah prison. They cited the uncertainty of the situation, as well as the heat and insufficient food, as key factors in driving detainees to despair.

Abeba, 24, described the acute mental distress of some of those she was detained with at Al Dayer:

“Some women speak to themselves, some don’t dress up, some can’t control [themselves] when they urinate.”

Amnesty International is not aware of any mental health facilities in detention centres. Many detainees are traumatized not only by their detention but by harrowing experiences on their journeys through Yemen. Abeba, who travelled from Ethiopia with her 19-year-old sister, said that many women were raped during their stay in Yemen by Yemeni policemen and smugglers.

“My sister is five-month pregnant. She was raped in Yemen. Every time I ask her by who she starts crying,” she said.

Pregnant women and children at serious risk

Detainees say there are a significant number of pregnant women in detention. Roza, 20, who was six months pregnant at the time of interview, said there were 30 other pregnant women in her cell in Jizan central prison. None of the pregnant women Amnesty talked to or heard about were receiving adequate health care.

Roza said that when women were eventually allowed to see a doctor in Jeddah, guards put metal chains on their legs and tied them in pairs. They were taken to an examination room but did not all receive adequate care. Roza said all the women were given the same pills, and she was denied an ultrasound – she has not had one for her entire pregnancy.

Several women have given birth during their detention; after a short stay at a medical facility they are returned to the same unsanitary conditions.  Three women reported that two babies and three toddlers had died, in Al-Dayer, Jeddah and Mecca prisons.

Abeba told Amnesty International:

“The children became sick in Al-Dayer because we were sleeping in a dirty place, it was too hot and we didn’t receive enough food. They had diarrhoea and they were very thin. Children were taken to the hospital, where they died.”

Torture and ill-treatment

Two detainees reported that guards had administered electric shocks to them and other detainees as punishment for complaining about conditions. 

Solomon, 28, told Amnesty International:

“They used this electric device… It made a small hole on my clothes. I saw a man whose nose and mouth were bleeding after that. Since then, we don’t complain anymore because we’re afraid they’ll do again the electric thing on our back.”

Eight detainees said they had experienced and seen beatings by prison guards, and shootings during escape attempts. One man said he had seen the body of a man who had been shot after trying to escape.

Amnesty International is calling on the Saudi Arabian authorities to immediately release all detainees, prioritising those who are most vulnerable, including children.

At the same time they must immediately and significantly improve detention conditions, end torture and other ill-treatment, and ensure detainees have access to adequate food, water, sanitation, health care, accommodation and clothes. There must also be an investigation into allegations of abuse, and those responsible must be held to account.

International cooperation needed

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.

However, at the time of writing, none of the detainees Amnesty International spoke to had been repatriated. The Ethiopian government has cited insufficient quarantine space for returnees as an obstacle to the repatriation process.

Despite travel restrictions due to COVID 19, at least 34,000 Ethiopian migrants returned to their home country globally between April 2020 and September 2020, including 3,998 from Saudi Arabia. This shows that returns have not totally halted and it is still possible to repatriate Ethiopian migrants, if both governments are committed to doing so.

In light of this, Amnesty International is calling on the Ethiopian and Saudi Arabian authorities to work together to ensure voluntary, safe and dignified repatriation is available to Ethiopian nationals. The international community also has a role to play:

“If quarantine spaces remain a significant obstacle, other governments and donors must support Ethiopia to increase the number of spaces, to ensure migrants can leave these hellish conditions as soon as possible,” said Marie Forestier.

“Nothing, not even a pandemic, can justify the continued arbitrary detention and abuse of thousands of people.”


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