Abdela Mohammed spent an “unbearable” 13 months languishing in an overcrowded Saudi detention center before being flown back to Ethiopia in May.
He was locked in a single cell with about 200 other people, he said. The detainees slept on the floor and were barely fed to survive.
“There was not enough food,” Abdela said of his time at Shmeisi detention center, east of Jeddah. “We only had breakfast and the rice we were given was not even enough for one bite.”
Detainees were also denied medical treatment, the 31-year-old said.
“When we knocked on doors to tell them someone was sick, they called us ‘dogs’ and told us to ‘let them die’,” Abdela recalled in a phone interview from his hometown. from southern Ethiopia, where he lives. with his family since his return.
Ignored by Ethiopia
He and other detainees called the Ethiopian embassy from prison, he said, but they “didn’t help us”.
“One day, an employee of the embassy, who saw us being beaten up by the police [in detention]told us: “Let them beat you”.
No one visited us when we told them someone was sick. When we informed them of the death of an old man, they refused to take his corpse and bury it.
Abdela despaired of getting out of the cell alive: “I thought that I would never come out again and that I would not become a human being again.
TSWT has attempted to contact the Ethiopian Embassy in Saudi Arabia for comment, but has so far been unsuccessful.
Popular destination for migrants
Solomon Belete spent even more time in detention. He does not want to talk about his 22 months locked up, except to say that it was “suffocating”.
But the 33-year-old is happy to describe the dreams that sent him to Saudi Arabia: building a family home for himself and his parents and saving money to start a business in Ethiopia.
A trained physical education teacher, he had spent several years looking for a job at home after graduating from college.
So when a friend living in Saudi Arabia told him it would be easy to get a job as a driver in the Gulf state, Solomon jumped at the chance.
“He said to me, ‘You will live in comfort driving the car of the rich. You are well educated. It won’t be difficult for you to get the driver’s license,” Solomon recalls.
But Solomon was detained at the airport upon his arrival and thrown straight into a deportation centre.
Solomon and Abdela are among at least 38,000 Ethiopians deported from Saudi Arabia since March 30, 2022, when an agreement between the governments of the two countries came into effect.
More than 100,000 Ethiopian migrants currently detained in the oil-rich country will be sent home under the deal.
Saudi Arabia is a popular destination for Ethiopian migrants – with around 750,000 of them residing in the Middle Eastern country, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Of these, some 450,000 likely migrated by “irregular means” and will need assistance to return home, IOM said in a recent statement.
Languish in detention
In recent years, Saudi Arabia has carried out regular roundups of undocumented workers, detaining those arrested in large deportation centers.
Human rights organizations have been denouncing the conditions of these centers for years.
Detainees are ‘chained in pairs, forced to use their cell floors as toilets and confined 24 hours a day in unbearably overcrowded cells’, according to an investigation into the mistreatment of Ethiopian detainees in the Middle Eastern country .
“Pregnant women, babies and young children are held in these same appalling conditions,” the inquest found.
In , detainees told Human Rights Watch that in a center in Riyadh, some 350 men shared two to five toilets and had no access to soap or showers.
Detainees also said they were assaulted and beaten by guards, “particularly when they sought medical attention or complained about the conditions”, the rights organization reported.
Perilous journey to get there
Before his last trip, Abdela Mohammed had worked twice in Saudi Arabia to earn money to support his family.
That’s why he decided to make the trip for the third time in 2018 – paying smugglers 10,000 riyals (€2,500 or $2,700) to take him from Somalia’s coastal town of Bosaso across the strait. from Bab-el-Mandeb to Yemen, then to Saudi Arabia.
But perhaps a harbinger of tribulations to come, this third time turned out to be a nightmare. Four people died on the boat to Yemen due to the heat, Abdela said.
Then at the border with Saudi Arabia, the caravan of Ethiopian migrants came under fire from the guards.
When he finally crossed the border, he took odd jobs, working as a goat herder, day laborer and bulldozer operator.
But he said that for the Saudis, he was only an executioner: “They treated me like a dog and an ass. I was insulted while I was working.
Then he was arrested while working on a mango and avocado farm.
Few promises at home
The Ethiopian government has appealed to donors for $11 million to help provide those returning home with food, temporary accommodation, medical assistance and counseling services.
After more than a year behind bars, Abdela landed in Ethiopia with just the clothes on his back.
He was given a bus ticket to pay for his return trip to Alaba, a small town in rural southern Ethiopia.
He has no plans to return to Saudi Arabia again, except perhaps to pray, said Abdela, a Muslim.
As for the returnee Solomon Belete, he is among those who urgently need help.
He returned to Ethiopia a broken man with a chronic health problem that began during his long detention.
“My body is shaking. I can’t keep my balance. I never sleep well,” he said.
Edited by: Kate Hairsine
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