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In-Depth Analysis: Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia complain of mistreatment in detention centers, arbitrary arrests; MoFA says efforts ongoing to ensure safety of residents, return of detainees

Returnees arriving at Bole International Airport. Photo: FBC

By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan 

Addis Abeba, August 27/2021 – In a fresh crackdown on what Saudi Arabia has long described as ‘illegal immigrants’, Ethiopian migrant workers both registered and unregistered have been targeted. The fresh crackdown also targeted Ethiopian permanent residents known legally as Foreign Residents or Muqeemen in Arabic. 

As a result of the recurring crackdown on all foreign residents of the Kingdom, thousands of Ethiopians were subjected to inhumane conditions in their detention centers, while Saudi Authorities denied allegations of torutue and inhumane treatment, the complaints by the migrants continued to resurface. 

Most notably a report by the Telegraph disclosed that Ethiopian diplomats warned detainees and residents of the kingdom from sharing photos and videos from inside their detention centers, arguing that it caused enormous distress to families back home and embarrassed them on the international stage. But to understand the huge number of detainees, one must take a look at recent changes in Saudi Arabia. 


ِAs part of its 2030 vision, which aims to diversify sources of income and support the economic sectors in which there are small numbers of Saudi workers, compared to the numbers of expatriate workers.

Among the vision’s programs is what is known as the “Expatriate Fees,” which was implemented from the second half of next year 2017. The fees aim at reducing the dependency on expatriate workers, by targeting what is known in Saudi legal system as “Murafeqeen” or escorts (Family members of a foreign worker) 

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In 2017, the fee was applied to escorts only, and was set at 100 SAR per month/escort. In 2018, fees varied with institutions employing more foreign workers compared to Saudi workers paying 400 SAR per month for each foreign  worker, while others employing less foreign workers compared to Saudi workers will pay 300 SAR per month, and all facilities will pay 200 riyals per month, all the while the fees for escorts rising to 200 SAR.

It was set that the final rates of fees will be set by 2020, as 800 SAR will be collected from companies and institutions with more foreign workers compared to Saudi workers, while companies with less foreign workers will pay 700 SAR, and the escorts fees will be set at 400 SAR. 

The main goal of the program is to reduce the number of dependent foreigners (escorts) in Saudi Arabia and open the space for more employment of young Saudis who were complaining about unemployment. It was registered that the number pf foreign residents increased from 12.2 million (37% of the entire population in 2016) to 12.6 million (38% of the entire population in June 2021). This can be credited to illegal migration mainly from the Horn of Africa countries with the majority of illegal immigrants originating from Ethiopia. 

What Is Happening Now? 

Ethiopian residents have always complained of discrimanton by Saudi authorities as well as societal alienation. In a fresh crackdown targeting illegal migrants, foreign residents who violated residence as well as labor laws, Saudi Arabia announced that it has registered the numbers of both illegal migrants (116,908), violators of residency laws (4,304,206) and violators of labor laws (802,125) making the total 5,223,239. While Saudi Authorities did not disclose the number of Ethiopians who violated its residency and labor laws, it disclosed out of all illegal migrants 54% were Ethiopians. 

According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released in May of this year, Ethiopian detainees complained of inhumane conditions inside Saudi detention centers. It was intensively covered last year, and despite agreements between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia to repatriate them, sources tell Addis Standard that the conditions are worsening.  

“I have never witnessed a more brutal treatment like I did there. Food was not given to us directly, instead it was put on the floor, people were visibly sick, officers kicked us, slapped us and called us names.”

Muktar, a recent returnee 

Like Muktar, a recent returnee who described to Addis Standard incidents of physical and verbal abuse at the hand of Saudi security. Muktar who asked to be mentioned by his first name for fear of reprisals from Ethiopian authorities, said, “I am not an illegal immigrant, I went to Saudi Arabia on a legal visa but due to their unfair laws, my visa expired,“ he added, “My salary was not enough to cover the expatriate fees and I did not want to beg because I am not used to begging. I took my wife and daughter and surrendered to Saudi authorities.” 

Muktar went on to describe his experience inside a Saudi detention center. He said, “They separated me from my wife and daughter who were deported only days after my surrender, I stayed behind as my deportation papers were not ready,” he continued holding back tears, “I have never witnessed a more brutal treatment like I did there. Food was not given to us directly, instead it was put on the floor, people were visibly sick, officers kicked us, slapped us and called us names.” 

When asked how his release was secured he said, “I honestly don’t know, I was praying and I guess my prayers were answered,” he described his journey, “They called my name, I already had my passport with me, I was taking to airport early in the morning, an Ethiopian airlines plane was ready for us and we landed here (Addis Abeba) in less than three hours.” 

“We were told not to speak to the media upon arrival.”

Sultan, a recent returnee 

Sultan who differs from Muktar in his legal status in Saudi as he is classified an illegal migrant shared a similar experience with Addis Standard and added, “I heard that there was a woman and two teeangers who died in these detention centers.” Sultan, who asked to go by his first name for security reasons, said, “We were told not to speak to the media upon arrival.” Addis Standard was not able to confirm the allegations independently. 

Does It Target Only Illegal Migrants? 

According to Ahmed Mohammed, a community organizer who works closely with Saudi authorities as well as the Ethiopian diplomatic outposts both in Riyadh and Jeddah, it is not. Ahmed told Addis Standard, “There are recorded incidents where the crackdown targeted legal residents with valid resident permits.” 

“I asked them (Immigration Police) for clarification but they laughed and told me to complain to the Embassy instead.”

An Ethiopian mother of four who lives in Mecca 

When asked about the exact number of affected families Ahmed replied, “No”. He explained that the nature of Saudi society and legal system prevent families from disclosing information about ongoing investigations. 

But a mother of four who is legally residing in Mecca, spoke to Addis Standard on the condition of anonymity and confirmed the occurrence of such illegal searches without warrants and some destruction of properties. She said, “They raided my house while my husband was at work, they just made a mess and left,” she added, “I asked them (Immigration Police) for clarification but they laughed and told me to complain to the Embassy instead.” 

Musab is another legal resident of Jeddah, he detailed an incident where he was stopped at a checkpoint and despite showing his residence permit (Iqama in Arabic), was arrested and transferred to the infamous Al-Shumaisi detention center on the road between Mecca and Jeddah. He said, “I have never witnessed such a crackdown on Ethiopians since the Manfouha incident (Clashes between the Saudi Police and the Ethiopian Community resulted in the death of 5 and the injury of an unknown number of civilians) in 2013.” 

Why Is It happening?

“If you make the live of Ethiopians in the kingdom difficult others at home will reconsider.” 

Musab, A First Generation Ethiopian

While Saudi authorities insist that the crackdown does not target Ethiopians alone, but instead is aimed at fighting illegal activities and ensuring the safety of citizens and foreing residents alike; the Ethiopian community residing in the kingdom believe the fresh crackdown might have other agendas. 

Musab believes that the crackdown is related to the political crisis in Ethiopia and aimed at curbing an expected increase in illegal migrants coming from Ethiopia. He explained, “If you make the lives of Ethiopians in the kingdom difficult, others at home will reconsider.” 

Ahmed complimented Musab but added that the Ethiopian-Egyptian rift over the Nile dam might be a factor. He said, “The Arab League passed a resolution where it urged the Arab nation to support Egypt’s position and the Ethiopian community in the kingdom could be used as a bargaining chip.” 

What Do Officials In Both Countries Say?

Addis Standard contacted the Saudi Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Health and General Directorate of Passports and Immigration (Al-Jawazat in Arabic) for comments on the matter and on the death of Ethiopian citizens inside Saudi detention centers, but the attempts were to no avail. 

Moreover, Addis Standard contacted the Ethiopian Embassy in Riyadh and the General Consulate in Jeddah but the attempts were to no avail. However, attending the bi-weekly presser given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) to local and international media, Addis Standard asked the spokesperson of the MoFA, Ambassador Dina Mufti about the situation in Saudi Arabia. 

“Yes , there are arbitrary arrests, and home raids without warrants but I assure you the Ethiopian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Lencho Bati is diligently working to address the issues.”

Amb. Dina Mufti 

On the respiration process, the spokesperson said, “So far 42,000 refugees have been returned from Saudi Arabia. Stranded prisoners and citizens of Ethiopia will be returned to Ethiopia by conducting 3 flights weekly prioritizing children, women and citizens with health issues.” The Ambassador disclosed that there was an agreement between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia to ease the reparation process. 

On the mistreatment of Ethiopian in detention centers, arbitrary arrests of legal Ethiopian residents of the kingdom and the complaints received by the Embassy in Riyadh, he said, “Yes , there are arbitrary arrests, and home raids without warrants but I assure you the Ethiopian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Lencho Bati is diligently working to address the issues.”
He added, “The MoFA has been receiving complaints that the Ethiopian Embassy in Saudi Arabia did not help the citizens to the level it was supposed to support. But the Embassy has recently discussed with the Saudi government on ways to address the mistreatment of our citizens.” The spokesperson did not respond to questions about reports of death of citizens inside Saudi detention centers AS

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