Thousands of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia are in a state of limbo as they try to return home after being ordered to leave the Gulf state.
On March 29, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign it dubbed « Nation Without Violations, » giving all foreign immigrants living there illegally 90 days to leave without incurring a penalty. They were told they could return later after applying and going through the immigration process.
As of the beginning of July, 111,000 Ethiopians had agreed to leave Saudi Arabia and 45,000 had successfully returned to Ethiopia, according to Meles Alem, the spokesperson of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many remained stranded, however, due to an inability to get a seat on overbooked flights.
Saudi government officials believe there are about 400,000 Ethiopians living illegally in the country. Most are employed as maids or other domestic workers; they have few legal rights and endure widespread abuse.
In early July, VOA Amharic reported that 110 people were stuck for days in a community center in Riyadh, waiting for open seats on flights back to Addis Ababa.
« It is difficult for me to sit or sleep. There is another pregnant woman here and what is going to happen to us? » the woman told Gabina, VOA’s Amharic youth program.
Another woman said, « We don’t have proper sanitation here. About 20 people are jammed in one room. »
Most of those who were stranded last week have returned to Addis, but many more are trying to get out as soon as possible.
It is unclear how many foreign workers will be affected. Middle East Monitor reported there are about 5 million illegal foreign workers living in the country. Saudi Arabia’s total population is 32 million, and it relies heavily on imported labor.
Government officials have said the move will improve job prospects for Saudis. It will « revive the economies of companies and establishments and protect small businesses and projects from illegal expats, while also reducing unemployment rates and creating a safe economic and social environment, » said Turki Al-Manea, general director of the branch of the ministry of labor and social development in Qassim, according to Arab News.
The head of the Ethiopian community in Riyadh, Shawel Getahun, warned that people should not try to start the process of traveling now.
« People who actually bought tickets should consider going on time. Those who haven’t bought tickets should process their papers in due time before it’s too late, » he said.
History of abuses
This is not the first such deportation. In 2013 and 2014, a similar effort led to the deportation of tens of thousands of Ethiopians. Many were detained, beaten and held in squalid conditions prior to deportation, according to a report by Human Rights Watch.
Yasin Kakande, a Ugandan journalist who has reported from the Middle East for more than a decade, said a traditional system known as « Kafala sponsorship » exists throughout the Gulf states, leading many African migrants to live in a state of indentured servitude.
The system gives Gulf citizens the right to sponsor foreign workers, who often must serve as maids or servants for an indefinite amount of time and for little or no pay.
« Most of the workers whom they refer to as illegal actually come to the countries legally, » Kakande told VOA. « They have high hopes of working and helping their families at home, but once they get into these countries … they find that there are a lot of abuses, that they cannot get away. »
In recent years, stories of maids being raped, beaten and starved have generated worldwide outrage. In one case that went viral on YouTube, a maid in Kuwait was left dangling from a seventh story window while her employer filmed it, making no attempt to help before the woman lost her grip and fell.
« Most of them, what they try to do, is try to run away from their sponsors to try to find some justice, and in the end they end up becoming illegals because the law doesn’t give them a chance to get out of their employer, » Kakande said.