Not even coronavirus stops Saudis from deporting Ethiopians

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Corona Chronicles: 13 April – 17 April

By Morris Kiruga
Posted on Tuesday, 14 April 2020 11:05

Ethiopia Saudi Arabia Deportees
In this photo taken Friday, Dec. 22, 2017, Ethiopian migrants sleep on cold floors after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the airport in Addis Ababa, (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

Not even the global COVID-19 pandemic has stopped the deportation of thousands of Ethiopian expatriates from the Gulf countries.

A report by the Financial Times  last Sunday said that Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are still deporting Ethiopians amidst the pandemic, further complicating Addis Ababa’s ability to contain and deal with the virus.

“Over the past 10 days, up to two flights a day carrying Ethiopian migrants have landed at Addis Ababa international airport, before returning to Saudi Arabia loaded with cattle exports,” said the news report by David Piling and Andrew England.

  • A total of 2,968 migrants were returned in the first 10 days of April, continuing a two flights a week deportation schedule that started with labour reforms in Riyadh in 2017. Since then, about 300,000 Ethiopians have been deported.
  • The number of Ethiopians illegally living and working in Saudi Arabia is unknown, although most estimates suggest over half a million. In a similar crackdown between 2013 and 2014, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians were deported, and human rights organisations have since highlighted Saudi Arabia’s brutality with its deportation process.
  • Deportees are survivors of one of the most hazardous crossings in human migration, where they move from Ethiopia into Saudi Arabia through Djibouti and across the Red Sea into Yemen. Reports over the years indicate that Saudi border guards routinely shoot down people attempting to cross the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, while those who make it through are imprisoned and then deported.

READ MORE: Ethiopia and the Afro-Gulf renaissance

Saudi Arabia denies brutality

A Saudi official denied that the deportations are forced, saying that “…where countries have responded positively [on whether they want their people back], we are organising flights, some of it we pay for to send them home, but we are not forcing people.”

  • Upon landing in Addis Ababa, the migrants are being taken to one of four quarantine centers in the city, further stretching the country’s resources in stopping new infections.
  • Officials also estimate another 30,000 Ethiopians on the same migration route are now stuck in Yemen, with some being pushed north towards Saudi Arabia and others south towards Djibouti.
  • UN officials also told The Financial Times that Saudi Arabia’s continued flights are emboldening other Gulf states to maintain the same deportations.

Saudi – Ethiopian relations

Last December, Saudi Arabia gave Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s administration $140m in loans, as Gulf states escalated their overt support for his economic reform programs.

Prior to that, in mid-2018, just months after Ahmed took over as Ethiopia’s PM, the United Arab Emirates pledged up to $3bn to Addis Ababa.

Such economic support makes it harder for Addis Ababa to openly complain about the ongoing deportations, despite the fact that they are stretching its public health resources. It stands the risk of not only importing new cases of COVID-19, but also exposing the migrants to the virus during their time in quarantine.

READ MORE: Qatar-Saudi Arabia: a diplomatic battle being fought in East Africa

African Union speaks up

In a press release  dated 10 April, the African Union said that “unilateral mass deportations worsen the desperate situation of migrants and can pose immense challenges to countries of origin of the migrants who are making efforts to create a safe and humane environment to receive their returning nationals by setting up acceptable centers allowing for medical check and confinement.”

Meanwhile, several African countries and the African Union have criticized the discrimination of Africans in the Chinese city of Guangzhou and other parts of the country.

Last week, multiple social and local media reports showed Africans of different nationalities had been kicked out of their homes or forced into prolonged quarantine, as China tries to stem a new wave of imported COVID-19 cases.

READ MORE: Ethiopian Airlines to China: last international carrier standing

Choice words to China

In a diplomatic note to Beijing , a group of African Ambassadors in the country demanded “the cessation of forceful testing, quarantine and other inhuman treatments meted out to Africans.” The Chair of the AU Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, also demanded “immediate remedial measures.”

A Kenyan national in Guangzhou told The Africa Report that the main target of China’s actions had initially been Africans lacking valid papers, after rumours suggested a new wave of infections in the city. “You need to show your papers to get tested,” he said, “so if you have no valid visa then you can’t get tested.”

“The landlords have been [told]  that if they house any person without the green status then they would be prosecuted and their property taken over by the government,” wrote one person on  a social media post. What followed was a wave of evictions not just from homes, but also from hotels and other places.

It also went further than just people who had not been tested because they lacked valid documents. “Others came to do business in China and they lodge in hotels but now the hotels are not ready to accept them hence they are stranded on the streets… homeless,” the Kenyan national told The Africa Report on Friday.

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