The prospect of paid work and better lives lured Teshome and Kadir from their native Ethiopia, their hopes pinned on Saudi Arabia. Instead, the two young men have spent at least five months idled and anguished, confined in one of the kingdom’s migrant detention centers.They fear they’ll never get out alive.“Our situation is above that of the dead and below the living,” Teshome, 21, told VOA in phone interviews from a center in the Saudi port city of Jizan.
Complaining of meager rations of rice, bread and water, no bedding, and crowded, unsanitary conditions, he added, “Many of us are getting sick, and some have passed away.”
VOA’s September 2 interviews with Teshome and 30-year-old Kadir echo those of recent reports. In mid-August, Human Rights Watch reported that at least hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Ethiopians were being held in Saudi Arabia, in part because of pandemic concerns.
U.N. Migration (IOM) issued a statement Tuesday amplifying the detainees’ appeals. Saying it was “alarmed by the deteriorating situation of Ethiopian migrants detained” in Saudi Arabia, IOM called for urgent action, including access to humanitarian aid to ensure migrants’ safety.
“We cannot stress enough the importance of considering detention only as a very last resort,” IOM said, “and of improving conditions in immigrant detention.”
Searching for work
The Ethiopian migrants are among millions of foreigners, mostly from South Asia and Africa, who sought jobs in the oil-rich kingdom. As the London-based Sunday Telegraph noted in an August 30 report on detention conditions, some 6.6 million worked there as of June 2019, largely in low-wage positions involving domestic work, construction or other physical labor.
But migrants have been perceived as possible COVID-19 carriers. Weeks after the World Health Organization’s March 11 declaration of a pandemic, armed Houthi rebels in northern Yemen chased off thousands of Ethiopian migrants to the border of neighboring Saudi Arabia, killing dozens as they fled, according to testimony collected by Human Rights Watch.
Saudi border guards also allegedly shot and killed dozens more migrants, but others hid in the mountainous countryside. Within days, some migrants surrendered or were found by Saudi border guards, who took them into detention.
Teshome and Kadir, whose real names are being withheld to protect them from possible retribution, were among those detained. They told VOA they had hoped to find work after paying traffickers to help them travel from Ethiopia to and through Yemen.