Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported Wednesday that thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been deported from Saudi Arabia and abused by Ethiopian authorities upon their return.
Tigray, a northern region of Ethiopia, has been a center of conflict for years. According to the New York Times, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) “dominated” Ethiopian politics for almost 30 years. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed purged the TPLF-led government in 2018 and pushed the group back to Tigray. After TPLF attacked a federal military base in November 2020, Ahmed launched military action against the region.
The resulting armed conflict has laid fertile ground for sexual violence, massacres, and other human rights violations. Many Ethiopians made the difficult decision to flee to nearby countries like Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia agreed in January 2021 that Saudi Arabia would return 40,000 Ethiopian nationals to Ethiopia. Forty percent of those returning between November 2020 and June 2021 were Tigrayan. HRW spoke with 23 Tigrayans to investigate their treatment by Saudi and Ethiopian authorities.
In Saudi Arabia, interviewees reported unsanitary conditions and suffered beatings with “plastic or rubber-coated metal rods” if they complained. Most interviewees said that they were not afforded the opportunity to speak with legal counsel or challenge their detention before deportation back to Ethiopia.
Some Tigrayans were detained upon arrival in Ethiopia, but others were allowed free movement in Addis Ababa and then detained. Detainees told HRW they are not permitted to speak with family members, and Ethiopian authorities have made no attempt to inform detainees’ families of their arrest or location. According to HRW, these conditions amount to forced disappearance, a violation of international law.
HRW identified a major facility in Addis Ababa and regional facilities in Semera and Shone that they believe house Tigrayan deportees. Detainees in the Semera detention center are allowed 30 minutes outside their rooms twice a day to get water and use the restroom. Detainees also report daily beatings and forced labor without food.
HRW urges Ethiopian authorities to end forced labor, permit deportees to speak with legal counsel and family members, and release anyone not charged with a criminal offense.