Saudi, Ethiopia authorities 'mistreating, detaining Tigrayan refugees': HRW

Saudi, Ethiopia authorities 'mistreating, detaining Tigrayan refugees': HRW
Tigrayans returned to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia have suffered mistreatment and detention at the hands of both Saudi and Ethiopian authorities, Human Rights Watch said
3 min read
05 January, 2022
Tigrayan returnees are being transferred to detention facilities where they are being held illegally, Human Rights Watch said [Getty]

Riyadh has been urged to stop deporting Tigrayan refugees after thousands of them were detained, mistreated, and forcibly disappeared by Ethiopian authorities upon their return from Saudi Arabia.

Ethiopians, including Tigrayans, have fled years of war, human rights abuses, and economic hardships at home for abroad, including to nearby Saudi Arabia.

The Ethiopian government announced last year that it would be cooperating with Saudi authorities to have tens of thousands of Ethiopians returned. Forty percent of the returnees were Tigrayan, Human Rights Watch said in its report published Wednesday.

According to Tigrayans who spoke to HRW for the report, Saudi authorities held them at formal and informal detention facilities across the country, including in Abha, Hadda, Jizan, and Jeddah, for up to six years before they were deported.

Former detainees told HRW that they were beaten by the Saudi security forces and endured overcrowding, terrible sanitation, and deprivation of tolerable bedding, food, water, and medical care.

Upon arriving in Ethiopia, their ordeal continued as they were detained yet again.

Ethiopian authorities have transferred Tigrayan returnees to centres in Addis Ababa where they were illegally held.

Others were caught checkpoints on the roads to Tigray or at the Semera airport in the Afar region and were then taken to detention facilities in Afar or southern Ethiopia.

"Tigrayan migrants who have experienced horrific abuse in Saudi custody are being locked up in detention facilities upon returning to Ethiopia," said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

She urged Saudi Arabia to "offer protection to Tigrayans at risk, while Ethiopia should release all arbitrarily detained Tigrayan deportees".

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A 23-year-old interviewee said that in mid-September, a member of the Afar security forces beat deportees because they allegedly spent too much time in the toilets. "They [Afar special police] came and beat many of us," the deported said.

"I am injured, and my leg and head are swollen. They beat us severely. They said, ‘You belong to the TPLF (Tigray People’s Liberation Front).'"

Ethiopian authorities are battling Tigray People’s Liberation Front in the Tigray and Afar regions.

Most of the deportees who were interviewed said they were denied the right to speak to their families and that some believed their loved ones still thought they were in Saudi Arabia. 

All of those interviewed said federal police refused to give a legal reason for their arrest and subsequent detention.

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The fighting in Africa's second most populous nation has displaced more than two million people and more than nine million need food aid, according to UN estimates.

There have been reports of massacres, mass rapes, and other atrocities by all sides, and the UN Human Rights Council last week ordered a probe into a wide range of alleged abuses, a move condemned by Addis Ababa.

The war broke out in November 2020 when Abiy sent troops into Tigray to topple the TPLF, the region's ruling party which had dominated national politics for three decades until he took power in 2018.

He accused its fighters of attacking army camps and vowed a swift victory. But the TPLF mounted a shock comeback, recapturing most of Tigray by June and then advancing into Afar and Amhara.

Western Tigray - which is claimed by Tigrayans and Amharas - has been occupied by Amhara forces since the war erupted, triggering large-scale displacement and US warnings of ethnic cleansing.