Human Rights Watch is urging the Saudi government to halt its plan to expel hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian immigrants who missed a late August deadline to register or face deportation.
Felix Horne, HRW’s senior researcher for the Horn of Africa, says the immigrants have a legitimate concern of being imprisoned or worse if they return to their home country.
“They say that they will be killed, arrested and tortured by the government they fled from," Horne told VOA's Horn of Africa Service. "If you are an individual who is fleeing [a] repression system, scared to return to the country of origin, you would be entitled to international protection,” he says.
An estimated 400,000 to 500,000 Ethiopians currently reside in Saudi Arabia, only a fraction of whom have registered their presence with the government.
The country has long been a destination of Ethiopians fleeing repression at home. The HRW report says that tens of thousands of Ethiopians have arrived there since November 2015, the start of a year of bloody anti-government protests in Ethiopia's Oromia region.
Saudi Arabia last deported large numbers of Ethiopians in 2013. Horne says a number of them were arrested upon their return or soon after. "Some of them reported torture in detention," Horne says.
This year, there has been no large-scale roundup as of yet. Mohamed, an Ethiopian national living in Riyadh, says he thinks the Saudi government is waiting for the end of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to start the deportations. The pilgrimage ended on Sunday.
"After the deadline [in past years], the police usually come during nightfall, cracking down on the immigrants, and even in the daytime, at the bus stop, at work, and anywhere," he tells VOA.
Ethiopians Fear Return
Nuur, an Ethiopian from Oromia, said most immigrants have grave fears of returning home.
“They [Saudi officials] say that they have built big prisons to imprison immigrants who fail to register on the deadline. But people prefer staying in Saudi prison instead of getting back home because they ran away for fear of their lives.”
During Saudi’s 2013 expulsions, Human Rights Watch says more than 160,000 Ethiopians were returned. The rights group's report alleged various abuses in the deportation process, including xenophobic attacks, beatings in detention, and horrendous jail conditions.
The Ethiopian government denies it mistreats its citizens, and says it welcomes its citizens returning from abroad.
Communication Minister Negeri Lencho said in March that the government was taking measures to prepare for another mass deportation. “The government is working to protect the rights of its citizens while returning home and a national task force has also been established to effectively coordinate their safe return," he said.
And In June, Ethiopia's National Disaster and Risk Management Agency allocated $58.2 million to help reintegrate citizens sent home from from Saudi Arabia.
No asylum system
Human Rights Watch and the immigrants say part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia lacks an official asylum system, leaving the immigrants in legal limbo.
Horne urges the Saudi government to implement asylum procedures in line with international norms.
“We urge for Saudis to put in place some sort of asylum system to understand all those migrants. Which ones should be entitled to international protection? Which ones are at risk of prosecution if they go back to Ethiopia? They should halt deportation until such time these are understood,” Horne says.
The country imposed an August 24 deadline for Ethiopian immigrants to register with the government in order to obtain work permits and "to better facilitate their cases."
Fatimah Baeshen is a director at the Arabia Foundation, a Washington-based think tank focusing on the Arabian peninsula, who told VOA the Saudi government is responsible for upholding the law with respect to illegal immigrants and also ensure its citizens have equal access to the labor market.
"There have been several attempts to rectify the situation: amnesty deadlines, the centers to house those who come forward to take advantage of the amnesty deadlines, etc.," she says.
She says its hard to understand why so few Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia register with the government.
For Nuur, the reason is obvious. "Even people who returned to the country after the Saudi and Ethiopian government facilitated their return are coming back in large numbers, because in Ethiopia they don’t have anything to start their life again as they had left everything behind. Here, they can help themselves, their family, and build the county they fled from as they send huge amount of money home,” he says.
For now, immigrants are just waiting to see what happens, “staying calm before the storm,” Nuur says.