Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – Ahmed, 20 years old, weakly sits down in a chair under the hot sun, dazed, as young men and women jostle in the yard around him. He has just been deported from Saudi Arabia after a month-long imprisonment, like the others at this crowded migrant transit center in Ethiopia’s capital.
But Ahmed’s ordeal is unique. He bears fresh scars across his knees, down his upper arms, and across his stomach. With a medical investigation by an Ethiopian doctor still ongoing, preliminary results show so far that Ahmed is missing his left kidney.
His short-term memory fails him. Ahmed, who comes from Ethiopia’s central Amhara region, does remember paying a couple hundred dollars to human smugglers for the dangerous, illegal passage to Djibouti, across the sea to Yemen, and north to Saudi Arabia.
He worked for a year and a half as a carpenter in Riyadh, living with other Ethiopian migrants and sending home meagre wages to his impoverished family.
Three months ago Ahmed recalls waking up in a Riyadh hospital room with jagged wounds crisscrossing his body, but with no recollection about how he got them, or how he got there. Promptly transferred to an overcrowded Riyadh prison because of his illegal immigration status, Ahmed was finally deported home by plane a few weeks ago. He is waiting to hear the doctor’s final prognosis before he returns to his village, a sickly version of his former self.
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‘Coming back empty-handed’
“It’s not just the return, it’s also the effect of what happens after,” explained Sara Hamo, a protection officer with the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) in Addis Ababa, about the thousands of deportees. “They are coming back empty-handed. They used to supply money and now they are a burden on the families they used to provide for. So the return is just the beginning.”
While accounts like Ahmed’s missing kidney are rare, many Ethiopians at the migrant transit centre talked about torture in ad-hoc detention centres run by traffickers, most often for ransom, as well as beatings, sex abuse, gruelling work hours and wages withheld by Saudi employers.
Bereket Feleke, a health ministry official, said respiratory tract infections were the most common ailment returnees suffer, which they get from being held for weeks in overcrowded and filthy detention centres before deportation.
Ethiopian women and girls, often recruited by employment agencies as domestic workers, fly to Saudi Arabia and are legally bound to their employers, who withhold their passports. If the workers break their contract – willingly or forced – their status becomes illegal. A similar system of employee “sponsorship”, known as kafala, exists across many of the Gulf states. But many more Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia are smuggled in, further increasing their vulnerability for exploitation.
Because of widespread abuse, the Ethiopian government has issued a temporary travel ban on domestic workers while it works on a protection law. Critics say this could encourage more illegal migration.
Last November, the kingdom’s authorities enforced strict labour laws governing foreign workers after a seven-month reprieve, spurred partly by the potential security threat of thousands of unemployed Saudi youth. And Saudi Arabian vigilante groups in Riyadh, armed with clubs and machetes, brutally attacked Ethiopian migrants in November, prompting tens of thousands of the workers to turn themselves in to the kingdom’s authorities out of fear.
When I asked for payment, and permission to call my family, the man of the house said: 'You have no family, so why do you need money?' He tied my hands behind my back, put cloth in my mouth and beat me. He then kicked me out of the house.
Unskilled labourers from neighbouring Yemen, the Horn of Africa and southeast Asia have been particularly hard-hit by the deportations, which the Saudi Arabian interior ministry claims have reached around a quarter of a million. Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch, suspects the number is much higher. “I think workers from different nationalities are taking a wait-and-see approach to what is happening in Saudi Arabia,” Coogle said. “They will want to see if this is a labour crackdown that is sustained, or if it is just to scare them, and will end up being business as usual.”
IOM in Addis Ababa estimates that nearly 160,000 Ethiopians have been detained and deported from Saudi Arabia because of their irregular status. The peak was in November, when 9,000 deportees arrived on planes to the Ethiopian capital every day. These days, the numbers have dwindled to around 300 a day.
At nearly 92 million, Ethiopia has Africa’s second-largest population after Nigeria, and a rapidly growing economy. Agriculture is the country’s leading economic sector, but drought, poor cultivation practices, land-grabs and mass displacement of rural populations have garnered headlines recently. The youth unemployment rate is high. Many choose to seek work abroad and send remittances home.
‘They have been targeted’
Abigail is a 15-year-old orphan from an Amhara village who quit school when she was in the second grade. Her seven-month trip to Saudi Arabia was arduous. Her uncle paid an agency to find her work in the kingdom, and send money home. With her passport withheld, she cleaned and took care of the children in the household she was assigned to, as well as their relatives’ homes.
“When I asked for payment, and permission to call my family, the man of the house said: ‘You have no family, so why do you need money?'” she recalled. “He tied my hands behind my back, put cloth in my mouth and beat me. He then kicked me out of the house.”
The police arrested Abigail. Without her passport and valid working papers, she was imprisoned and deported. “There is an anger within the Ethiopian population,“ said Temesgen Deressa, a guest scholar with the Africa Growth Initiative at the Brookings Institute. “They have been targeted – killed, or tortured and dehumanised.”
“In terms of the whole economy, the remittances might not be significant, but the returnees’ families are going to be hard-hit,” he said. “There is a high level of poverty in Ethiopia, and I don’t think the Ethiopian government has the capacity for rehabilitation. Basically, the returnees will have a very hard time.”
Follow Rebecca Murray on Twitter: @BeccaMurr