By William Davison December 13, 2013
Teklai Hagos says he watched in horror as Saudi Arabian police beat Ethiopian migrants protesting against the alleged kidnapping and rapes of Ethiopian women by young Saudi men.
“When we said stop, then the police started hitting us,” the 30-year-old former pipe-factory worker in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, recalled in an interview in Addis Ababa.
Teklai is among more than 100,000 Ethiopians repatriated from Saudi Arabia since the kingdom began deporting illegal migrants in November. It’s a crackdown Teklai and New York-based Human Rights Watch say involved beatings by Saudi police and rape and murder by vigilantes. Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansour al-Turki denied the claims.
The Arab world’s biggest economy has taken action against illegal workers as it pushes to create more jobs for Saudi citizens and stave off the unrest that has toppled leaders across the Middle East since 2011.
At least 115,465 Ethiopians have been repatriated, according to the International Organization for Migration, or IOM. Hundreds of thousands of Asian migrants are also being deported from the oil-producing nation, which was home to about 9 million foreign workers in a population of 29.9 million, according to Saudi government statistics.
Ethiopia’s government said three nationals were killed in clashes with police in Riyadh that started Nov. 9. Ejected workers say rioting occurred after Ethiopians were angered by the rape of Ethiopian women at apartments in the Manfouha district.
Ethiopians said Saudi citizens armed with sticks, machetes and firearms attacked foreigners in Manfouha on Nov. 9, according to Human Rights Watch.
One 30-year-old witness saw the bodies of two Ethiopians who’d been beaten to death and one who’d been shot, it said. Another had a video that “appeared” to show a Saudi man raping an Ethiopian woman, the advocacy group said Dec. 1 in an e-mailed statement.
Mohammed Shime was near the area’s Al Rajhi Bank after a Saudi man was killed in clashes. The 22-year-old says he saw six Ethiopians stabbed to death when they fought back against Saudi youth — shabaab in Arabic — who arrived in cars.
“Four come to you and start cutting you and asking for your phone,” he said in an interview in Addis Ababa on Nov. 26. “Then other shabaab come with their knives shouting ‘Allahu Akbar.’”
The claims of abuse by police and vigilantes are “false” and deportation camps are open to diplomats and human rights monitors, al-Turki said in a reply to questions sent by text message on Dec. 5. He accused illegal Ethiopian migrants of instigating violence in Riyadh as well as in the Saudi cities of Jeddah and Medina.
Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tedros Adhanom chastised Muslim Saudi Arabia for its treatment of citizens from his country, which he said gave refuge to followers of the Prophet Mohammed fleeing persecution in the 7th century.
The “last 10 days have been the most tragic in my life,” he said on Nov. 18.
Ethiopia, Africa’s second-most populous nation, may face difficulties resettling workers, many of whom went abroad because of limited job opportunities at home.
While the economy registered Africa’s fastest growth over the past five years, with average expansion rates of 10.3 percent, the maximum monthly earnings for a laborer are about $80.
For two years, Mohammed worked on a building site earning 1,500 Saudi riyals ($400) a month.
Most of those returning to Addis Ababa are bussed from Bole International Airport to a compound run by IOM. From there, coaches take them home, in Mohammed’s case to Kemissie in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, 227 kilometers (141 miles) north of the capital.
His trip to the kingdom was very different. Along with tens of thousands of others every year, Mohammed paid traffickers 20,000 Ethiopian birr ($1,050) to take him him to neighboring Djibouti and then across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.
Others work in the kingdom legally. In the 12 months through July 7 last year, 160,000 Ethiopian women flew to Saudi, the majority to work as maids, joining thousands already there. Many are being deported because they changed jobswithout employer permission, making their new work illegal, Human Rights Watch said.
Mental, physical and sexual abuse are frequent complaints made by Ethiopian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch. Ethiopia temporarily stopped issuing permits for unskilled work abroad in October, mainly because of mistreatment.
“The returning migrants are arriving in desperate condition,” the Geneva-based IOM said in an e-mailed statement on Dec. 6. “They are traumatized, tired, anxious and some seriously sick.”
Some returnees with psychological problems are given refuge by the Addis Ababa-based charity Good Samaritan Association, which rents a two-story villa on the eucalyptus-covered hills above the capital.
One new resident, Zeina Mussa, 18, clasps a black headscarf over her face and says that although she’d been working in Saudi Arabia as a maid for about eight months, she doesn’t know which city she was in.
Mohammed saved 20,000 riyals during his two years, money he says will help him become a businessman. He’s advising other Ethiopians from seeking riches abroad even as he plans to invest his savings.
“In Saudi Arabia the money is good,” he said. “But it’s useless if you’ve money and no life.”
To contact the reporter on this story: William Davison in Addis Ababa at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Antony Sguazzin at [email protected]