In Saudi Arabia, thousands of refugees from Ethiopia may be locked up in camps that human rights defenders refer to as torture centers

A video that leads through tiled, dark rooms full of rubbish. Men trudging through water coming from overflowing toilets. And a male voice that says: “This is how we live here. And then we are also beaten with clubs. They treat us like ants. Our death means nothing to them.”

It is images like this that have caused international consternation in the past few days. It’s about camps that Saudi Arabia locks hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants in to curb the spread of Covid. In fact, human rights activists complain that the facilities were more like torture centers.

In the past year alone, almost 140,000 people crossed the Yemeni border into Saudi Arabia, estimates the UN Migration Organization. Most of them are Ethiopians who fled their country because of unemployment, drought or human rights violations. Saudi Arabia regularly deports migrants back to Ethiopia.

In Saudi Arabia, thousands of refugees from Ethiopia may be locked up in camps that human rights defenders refer to as torture centers. The authorities fear that the migrants are spreading the coronavirus.

Fear of the coronavirus

When the corona pandemic reached Saudi Arabia in March, the kingdom – like many Gulf states – feared that the large numbers of migrants could spread the virus quickly. 3,000 Ethiopians were repatriated at short notice in April; according to a UN note, the repatriation of 200,000 more was allegedly planned. International pressure followed, but also the desire of the Ethiopian government for a respite. “Unfortunately, Ethiopia refused re-entry, claiming that there were not enough quarantine facilities on arrival,” said the Saudi embassy in London. The government has since announced that “investigations have been initiated”.

The migrants in the camps have been vegetating for months. Because the kingdom does not think much of the public, hardly anyone noticed. A report by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) went largely unnoticed, but an article in the British Telegraph triggered an international storm of protest, and Amnesty International is preparing its own report on human rights violations.

Contact via smuggled cell phones
The Ethiopian journalist Zecharias Zelalem and his “Telegraph” colleague Will Brown communicated with the prisoners via cell phones that had been smuggled into two of the camps. “There are around 200 people in a large room in the first camp,” Zelalem told ARD. “If the other twelve rooms are just as full, there are thousands living here – but we don’t know.”

The testimony obtained secretly showed that there was not enough to eat and, despite the heat, hardly anything to drink. The sanitary situation was catastrophic, skin rashes, and diseases developed. Zelalem quoted an eyewitness as saying: “A boy, around 16 years old, hanged himself last month. The guards just throw the bodies out like garbage.”

The reports are piling up

Much aligns with what Human Rights Watch said. Accordingly, families are separated. Women stand in ankle-high water in a room. And again: pictures of inflammations and open wounds, all untreated.

HRW also describes a process at the border in April: on the Yemeni side, Houthi rebels stormed a camp with hundreds of migrants, calling them “coronavirus carriers”. People are said to have been driven to the other side with rifle fire and mortar shells. The Saudi security forces took the same action against them there, the report said. Dozens have probably died and the UN must investigate the process, the organization demands.

Above all, Ethiopia also wants peace and quiet
Now, for the time being, calm should return, something not only Saudi Arabia wants. The Ethiopian consulate is reportedly pressuring those affected not to testify in public. And the Ethiopian government thanks to the rich kingdom for the “extraordinary support” of the illegal Ethiopians.

“We are working on a plan to bring them back completely by October,” explains Ethiopia’s Foreign Office spokesman Dina Mufti to the ARD studio in Nairobi. The situation will be uncomfortable for both countries. For Zecharias Zelalem the research was a decisive experience: “From the comfortable couch I spoke to people who were tortured far away. This contrast – it changed my view of life.”