Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday that thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been detained in Ethiopia after being deported from Saudi Arabia, suffering brutality from guards and atrocious conditions in both countries.
Tigrayan refugees appear to have been caught between a harsh expulsion programme by Saudi Arabia and a crackdown by Ethiopia during conflict in their northern homeland region.
HRW detailed a litany of abuses against the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, including being beaten with rubber or wooden rods, denied access to their families, forced to pick coffee for free, and denied food and water.
Detainees reported beatings, forcing them to strip naked, and making them endure freezing temperatures and insufficient sleeping space in Saudi Arabia, where they were mainly picked up for irregular immigration status.
“Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them,” HRW researcher Nadia Hardman said.
“Saudi Arabia should stop contributing to this abuse by ending the forced return of Tigrayans to Ethiopia and allowing them to seek asylum or resettlement in third countries.”
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, whose government has been battling the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) since late 2020, denies discriminating against Tigrayans.
“There are no ethnic-based prison facilities or places for deportees from other countries,” spokesperson Legesse said, adding that the report was inaccurate, unsupported by evidence and based on people working for the TPLF.
He said many Ethiopians have been detained under a state of emergency on suspicion of aiding what he called terrorists – the federal government’s term for the TPLF, who have long ruled Tigray and dominated national politics before Abiy’s rule.
Several hundred prisoners were said to be held in each of five centres in Ethiopia, according to HRW.
TRHAS, 33, a woman expelled from Saudi Arabia in December 2020, said she was put on a bus with 700 other deportees.
“We asked the federal police for food and water and the toilet, but we were beaten if we left our seats. They said, ‘Bandits don’t need food’,” HRW quoted her as saying.
HRW reported last month that a Tigrayan man who was deported after two years in a Saudi jail was picked up in an Addis Ababa reception centre in November and accused of TPLF sympathies.
The Middle East is home to tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants. Addis Ababa announced last year that it would help repatriate 40,000 of its nationals living in Saudi Arabia.
Between April 2017 and August 2021, 31.5% of people who returned to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia did so to return to Tigray, according to United Nations figures.
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