A new investigation by British media has made damning claims about the treatment meted out to African immigrants by Saudi authorities who have kept immigrants in detention facilities to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
According to the Sunday Telegraph, Saudi Arabia is housing immigrants many from the countries in the Horn of Africa, in awful conditions in places such as Al Shumaisi, near Mecca and Jazan, a port city not far from the border with Yemen.
The Telegraph also said it was able to obtain videos and photos captured by some of the men in these facilities. Some of the footage showed squalid conditions in a small room as well as sickly-looking men lying on the bare floor.
The paper reported that some of the men said they are beaten with electric cords and racially abused by Saudi officials. A teenager reportedly hanged himself when he could no longer endure the abuse.
Adam Coogle, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director in the Middle East has said there is “no excuse” for Saudi Arabia to hold immigrants in such a condition given the wealth of that country.
“Photos emerging from detention centres in southern Saudi Arabia show that authorities there are subjecting Horn of Africa migrants to squalid, crowded, and dehumanizing conditions with no regard for their safety or dignity,” said Coogle to The Telegraph.
But as chilling as these revelations are, they are not out of place with what many African migrants report of their stay in Middle Eastern countries, particularly, Saudi Arabia.
Many men from mostly Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, and Ethiopia migrate to Saudi Arabia for better economic opportunities. There are no reliable numbers on how many migrants eventually find themselves in Saudi Arabia because a sizable proportion crosses into the kingdom from war-ravaged Yemen.
In cities such as Riyadh and Jeddah, these Africans are forced to take different menial jobs from construction site hands to janitors. At the mercy of unforgiving taskmasters, many Africans in Saudi Arabia’s two major cities break their backs for peanuts.
Women too, who make the journey, usually end up as domestic workers or worse, forced into prostitution.
But it would seem it is Ethiopians who bear the brunt of routine Saudi abuse. Despite generously serving up themselves for Saudi Arabia’s cheap labour addiction, it is common to find Ethiopians associated with criminality, according to a Guardian report from 2013.
Saudi Arabia perennially sends back illegal immigrants from Southeast Asia and the Horn of Africa. But as fear of the spread of the coronavirus shaped policy, detentions and deportations have looked faintly xenophobic.
In April, the Saudis deported thousands of Ethiopians back to Addis Ababa because of a suspected health risk if they remained in the country. A total of 2,968 migrants were returned to the East African country in the first 10 days of April.
This was despite the United Nations’ warning that mass transportation of people carried a greater risk of “transmission of the virus” than if suspected cases were contained in a locale.
Containment in Saudi Arabia probably looks like what The Telegraph has reported. In the coming weeks, Ethiopia and other countries with nationals among the detained are expected to make formal enquiries about deportation.
But that would only be a smidgen of relief for now, for a few people. The larger problem about the condition of the African in Saudi Arabia will take so much more than these countries can currently afford.