Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans repatriated from Saudi Arabia have been detained or forcibly disappeared after arriving back home in Ethiopia, a new Human Rights Watch report (HRW) has said.
The allegations detailed by HRW on Wednesday took place during a brutal conflict that erupted between federal government troops and fighters from the northern Tigray region in November 2020, killing tens of thousands of people and leaving an immense humanitarian crisis in its wake.
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Ethiopia’s government, which in November announced a six-month state of emergency, denies ferreting out Tigrayans based on their ethnicity. It says only people suspected of supporting the Tigrayan forces, who last month pulled back into their region, were being investigated. Ethiopia’s own state-affiliated rights watchdog estimated that thousands had been caught up in the sweeps.
In its report, HRW said Tigrayans repatriated from Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have migrated to seek work over the years, were singled out and held in the capital, Addis Ababa, and elsewhere against their will upon returning.
Others were prevented from returning to Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, after being identified at roadside checkpoints or airports and transferred to detention facilities, the report said.
“Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them,” said Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrants rights researcher at HRW.
There was no immediate comment by Ethiopian authorities.
The rights watchdog interviewed Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia between December 2020 and September 2021, during which tens of thousands were repatriated under an agreement between the two countries.
Some of the Tigrayan deportees detained after arriving in Ethiopia reported suffering physical abuse, including beatings with rubber or wooden rods. Others were accused of colluding with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ran Tigray before the start of the war, and is now considered a “terrorist” group by the federal government.
Two deportees told HRW they were taken with other men from migrant centres by police and transported by bus to coffee farms, where they were put to work in terrible conditions for no pay and little food. Many were denied contact with family and feared their relatives thought they were still in Saudi Arabia.
“The Ethiopian authorities’ detention of thousands of Tigrayan deportees from Saudi Arabia without informing their families of their arrest or whereabouts amounts to enforced disappearance, which also violates international law,” the report said.
Meanwhile, the United States’s Horn of Africa envoy Jeffrey Feltman is due to visit Ethiopia on Thursday for meetings with senior government officials to discuss peace talks, in the latest international push to bring an end to the conflict.