Ethiopian migrants and refugees who have undertaken dangerous journeys to find work in Saudi Arabia are encountering abusive prison conditions before being forcibly deported en masse with nothing but the clothes on their backs, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch.
Based on interviews with deportees in the Ethiopian capital Addis, Ababa, the report on Thursday documented exploitation, trafficking and violence that begin, according to the group, from the moment the migrants set off across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to reach the Arabian Peninsula.
It said the people are being exploited and tortured by a network of trafficking groups as they try to cross into Saudi Arabia, adding that officials in the two countries and Ethiopia have done little to protect them from abuses at the hands of traffickers and security forces.
The report also said they have failed to ease the return of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians caught up in a large-scale Saudi deportation campaign that began in November 2017.
"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 for Human Rights Watch.
"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."
The Saudi government has not issued any response yet.
Ethiopians have long looked to Saudi Arabia as an escape from poor economic prospects and state repression, hoping to find work despite not having legal status.
To get there, they board overcrowded boats that are at constant risk of sinking during sea crossings that can last up to 24 hours.
One survivor told Human Rights Watch that he saw smugglers throw dozens of people overboard.
"The boat was in trouble and the waves were hitting it. It was overloaded and about to sink so the [middlemen] picked some out and threw them into the sea, around 25," he said.
Once in Yemen, Ethiopian migrants said they face kidnappings, beatings and other abuses by traffickers trying to extort ransom money from them or their family members back home. The traffickers include Ethiopians who carry out beatings and torture.
Crossing into Saudi Arabia requires evading border guards who frequently open fire, killing many would-be migrants.
"At the border, there are many bodies rotting, decomposing," one 26-year-old told Human Rights Watch. "It is like a graveyard."
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 has previously documented Saudi border guards shooting and killing migrants crossing the border.
Six interviewees told Human Rights Watch they were apprehended by Saudi border police, while five successfully crossed the border but were later arrested. They described abusive conditions in several prisons in southern Saudi Arabia, including inadequate food, toilet facilities, and medical care; lack of sanitation; overcrowding; and beatings by guards.
Despite the risks, up to half a million Ethiopians were in Saudi Arabia when officials there launched a crackdown on undocumented migration in 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Around 10,000 Ethiopians on average were deported monthly between May 2017 and March 2019, and Human Rights Watch said deportations have since continued.