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Africa COVID19 Human Rights

The Crime of Poverty: Saudi and Yemeni Government Sins Against Ethiopian Migrants

As anyone can imagine, migrants caught in-between what is essentially a failed state and a region as fractured as the Middle East is a recipe for tragedy.

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As Yemen’s bloody civil war continues to garner worldwide attention, the lack of international outrage over its devastating effects on the thousands of Ethiopian migrants arriving at its shores is alarming. As anyone can imagine, migrants caught in-between what is essentially a failed state and a region as fractured as the Middle East is a recipe for tragedy.

When first making the journey towards Saudi Arabia, human traffickers extort desperate East Africans and move them in overcrowded boats without food or water. There have been many reports of boats capsizing and migrants being thrown out in the middle of the sea; in fact, hundreds of bodies wash up on the shores of Libya, Egypt, and Yemen every year.

Those that manage to survive the boat ride are now looking at a tumultuous migration by land through Yemen and to Saudi Arabia. 

Using Covid-19 as a scapegoat, Human Rights Watch has discovered that the Houthis, an Iranian-backed militia in the north-west territory of Yemen, have begun killing migrants making this journey to Saudi Arabia. The Houthis have justified their actions by accusing fleeing migrants of carrying and spreading the coronavirus. 

In June and July of 2020, Human Rights Watch interviewed Ethiopian migrants who had made this arduous journey. Recalling the Houthis’ violent rounding of Ethiopians at the unofficial migrant settlement of al-Ghar in northwestern Yemen, one pregnant Ethiopian woman claimed: 

“There were lots of Houthi soldiers. There were more than 50 trucks. They were firing a mortar which you put on the ground, and it fires. Everyone started to run to escape. I ran with a group of 45 people – and 40 people were killed in my group. Only five of us escaped. They were not firing guns, just these mortars.” 

The Houthis had shown up with cars to transport Ethiopian migrants from al-Ghar to the southern Saudi border. Those who defied were killed. Once arriving at the border, witnesses also claimed that Saudi border guards fired at the migrants who were being forced to cross it. The Houthis responded by firing back at the Saudi guards and any migrant fleeing back south to Yemen. 

After the Houthis forced Ethiopian migrants into Saudi Arabia, those that survived the violence now face a different kind of adversity. An investigation done by The Sunday Telegraph found that hundreds, potentially thousands of East African migrants are being held in concentration camps in Saudi Arabia as part of its efforts to control Covid-19. These migrants have been held for months now: starved, beaten by guards, and kept in extremely unsanitary conditions without access to medical treatments. 

Credit: The Sunday Telegraph 

Due to immense physical and psychological trauma, many are losing hope and turning to suicide. Death rates also continue to rise as many die from heatstroke; the Arabian heat combined with the lack of access to basic necessities such as water has made it torturous for migrants to survive. 

Abebe, an Ethiopian migrant who’s been held in the camps for over four months, tells the Telegraph:

“It’s hell in here. We are treated like animals and beaten every day. If I see that there is no escape, I will take my own life. Others have already.” 

Credit: The Sunday Telegraph 

Both the Yemeni and Saudi governments have failed to address the extreme abuse suffered by migrants. Yemen is facing many crises, with nearly 80% of the population dependent on foreign humanitarian aid that it simply does not have the resources to take care of these migrants. And sadly, racism is further fueled by the spread of Covid-19, which has made migrants a greater target. 

The Saudi government, with its own history of mistreating African migrants, has refused to acknowledge the atrocities committed within its own borders. 

On the flip side, the Ethiopian government has been just as silent and neglectful on this matter. As a result of his administration’s response to this crisis, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, 2019 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is garnering negative coverage for his government. 

The Saudi Embassy in London told the Telegraph that “Sadly, the Ethiopian authorities have refused (the migrants’) re-entry under the claim of not being able to provide adequate quarantine facilities upon their arrival.” And therefore, claim to be forced into holding them in these centers. 

In response to all of these reports and critique of their minimal efforts, the spokesperson for the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in which they claim that “Ethiopia has never refused to receive its citizens from any country but operates according to principle and the availability of resources and capacity.” 

Surprisingly, the statement also flatters the Saudi government by wanting to “extend its sincere appreciation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for the outstanding support extended to our citizens in general and Ethiopian irregular migrants in particular.” 

The statement finally admits, as it relates to the Saudi detention centers and human trafficking in both Yemen and Saudi Arabia, “We are not doing enough.” 

For the thousands being tortured in the camps in Saudi Arabia, and the thousands more caught in the crossfire in the northern border of Yemen, this simply doesn’t cut it. 

A man being held in Saudi Arabia told The Sunday Telegraph, “To [the Saudis] or even to Abiy, it’s like we’re ants. When we die, it’s as if an ant died, no one cares or pays attention.”

Despite alarms continuously being rung by international human rights groups for the past three decades, it appears that the Saudi government is too powerful to be moved, and the native countries of these migrants simply do not care. No western nation would tolerate such brutal treatment of their citizens at this scale, yet, the world sleeps soundly as hell in unloaded on the poor and brown. Not only is it important that countries like Ethiopia have the resources to sustain and deter their people from making such journeys, but there also needs to be a larger media role in the humanization of African people as a whole. 

With the excuse of Covid, thousands of Ethiopians have been in these detention centers since late March, the telegraph exposed these horrors in late August, and only in October did large media networks begin to cover these atrocities seriously: with not nearly enough urgency that it deserved. 

Every life has value. Unfortunately, from government leaders to the media, what one would gather from the story above is that this value does not apply to the most vulnerable. 




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By Kalkidan Alemayehu

Kalkidan is a Political Science major with an emphasis in International Relations at UCLA. She is pursuing a career in international development and poverty reduction.

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