Migrants held by Saudi Arabia face alleged torture, 'appalling' conditions: HRW

Migrants held by Saudi Arabia face alleged torture, 'appalling' conditions: HRW
4 min read
16 December, 2020
Human Rights Watch's new report is the latest to detail allegations of torture and unsanitary, cramped conditions in Saudi detention centres.
Human Rights Watch has called for the release of vulnerable detainees [Getty]
Saudi Arabia is detaining migrants in conditions "so degrading that they amount to ill-treatment", Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

Hundreds of mostly Ethiopian migrants are currently being held in a Riyadh deportation centre faced with allegations of torture and deaths in custody.

Saudi authorities must immediately release vulnerable detainees and end any torture and other forms of ill-treatment, the New York-based rights groups said on Tuesday.

It is imperative that Saudi detention facilities meet international standards, HRW added.

"Saudi Arabia, one of the world's richest countries, has no excuse for detaining migrant workers in appalling conditions, in the middle of a health pandemic, for months on end," said Nadia Hardman, the group's refugee and migrant rights researcher.

"Video footage of people crammed together, allegations of torture, and unlawful killings are shocking, as is the apparent unwillingness of the authorities to do anything to investigate conditions of abuse and hold those responsible to account," Hardman added.

At least three people have died in the Riyadh detention centre between October and November, according to testimonies collected by HRW.

The leading human rights organisation spoke to seven Ethiopian migrants currently being held in the facility, as well as two Indian men who were detained there before being deported. 

The interviewees told HRW they were kept in "cramped, unsanitary" rooms with just two to five toilets between around 350 other migrants .

Conditions meant there was not enough room for everyone to lie down at once, meaning that some have to take turns to sleep through the day and night, the interviewees said.

They were also not supplied with beds or mattresses, they added, instead having to sleep with unclean blankets. Those accounts were corroborated by videos and photos shared with HRW.

Crowded and unsanitary conditions have continued throughout the coronavirus pandemic, making proper hygience and social distancing "impossible".

Authorities have not taken care to protect detainees at higher risk for Covid-19, the interviewees said.

Detainees were also subjected to beatings with rubber-coated metal rods, the interviewees described, adding that this often occured after they asked for medical attention or complained about the detention conditions.

In one case, three detainees were beaten so severely that two died of their wounds immediately while the other died just hours later, a 27-year-old Ethiopian migrant told HRW.

No legal recourse

Those allegations could not be independently confirmed but six other interviewees told the rights group they had seen detainees beaten so badly that they were taken from the room and never returned.

Seven of the nine migrants who spoke to HRW said they had been detained due to lacking a valid residency permit, but two others said they had the necessary permits which Saudi authorities ignored.

None of them were given an opportunity to challenge their arrest, detention or deportation, they said. Prolonged periods of detention without legal review are considered illegal under international law.

"Saudi Arabia should act fast to end the abusive conditions in the Riyadh deportation center and contain the potential of a devastating outbreak of Covid-19. Governments with nationals inside the facility should pressure the authorities and do all they can to facilitate voluntary repatriation," Hardman said.

'It's hell in here'

In October, Amnesty International also highlighted the appalling conditions faced by migrants in Saudi detention centres.

Amnesty described "filthy cells" that double as toilets where migrants are held around the clock, sometimes "chained together in pairs".

It said two migrants "reported personally seeing the dead bodies of three people - an Ethiopian man, a Yemeni man and a Somali man - in Al-Dayer centre" in southern Jizan province.

"All those interviewed said they knew of people who had died in detention, and four people said they had seen bodies themselves," the report said.

It follows a report from British newspaper The Telegraph in August with included photographs and video footage showing unsanitary detention centres, where floors were covered with sewage from clogged toilets.

Migrants interviewed by The Telegraph also alleged routine beatings from Saudi authorities.

"It's hell in here. We are treated like animals and beaten every day," an Ethiopian migrant identified as Abebe said.

"My only crime is leaving my country in search of a better life. But they beat us with whips and electric cords as if we were murderers."

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