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Saudi Arabia: thousands of Ethiopian migrants held in 'inhuman' conditions - new report

Mass round-ups have taken place as part of crackdown on undocumented migrant workers

Reports of torture, denial of medical care, overcrowded lice-infested cells and at least ten deaths in custody 

‘Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world, yet it is cramming migrants in dirty detention centres’ - Heba Morayef

The Saudi Arabian authorities are forcibly returning hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian migrants after arbitrarily holding them in inhuman and cruel conditions because they do not have valid residency documents, said Amnesty International in a new report today. 

Amnesty is calling on the Saudi authorities to investigate cases of torture as well as at least ten deaths in custody of detained Ethiopian migrants.


Amnesty’s 19-page report - ‘It’s like we are not human’: forced returns, abhorrent detention conditions of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia - details the plight of Ethiopian men, women and children arbitrarily held in dire and abusive conditions in the overcrowded Al-Kharj detention centre in Riyadh and the Al-Shumaisi facility near Jeddah, and then forcibly returned to Ethiopia between June 2021 and May 2022.


Amnesty confirmed the location of the Al-Kharj and Al-Shumaisi detention centres through satellite verification, and geo-verified videos from inside both centres revealing the dire conditions of the facilities.

Former detainees told Amnesty of the overcrowded and the deeply unsanitary conditions in both of the detention centres, describing them as “inhuman”. They recounted torture and beatings, and said there was inadequate food, water, bedding and no access to adequate medical care, including for children, pregnant women or the severely ill.

Bilal, a former detainee held in Al-Shumaisi for 11 months, said he shared a room with 200 other people, yet there were only 64 beds. Detainees had to take turns sleeping on the floor. He told Amnesty, “It is like we are not human”. Mahmoud, another detainee who was held in both detention centres, said their daily food allowance was barely sufficient for one person, while two other former detainees said the authorities gave each detainee just half a litre of water per day, despite scorching temperatures in the overcrowded facilities.


All former detainees told Amnesty that the spread of lice and skin diseases were rampant. When lice spread among inmates, they resorted to purchasing plastic bin bags to use as blankets for protection and burnt the hair off their own scalps to remove lice because the authorities offered them no assistance. Two humanitarian workers told Amnesty that a significant number of people returned to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia’s prisons suffered from respiratory and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

Six former detainees told Amnesty they suffered beatings and torture, including being beaten with metal sticks and cable wires, being slapped in the face, being punched and forced to stand outside in extreme heat on asphalt roads until their skin burned. The detainees said they were tortured after they protested over the conditions, or when they tried to get medical attention for an unwell cellmate.

In Amnesty’s assessment, the Saudi authorities have violated the basic principle under the Nelson Mandela Rules of treating prisoners “with the respect due to their inherent dignity and value as human beings”.

Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director, said: 

“Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has arbitrarily detained and forcibly returned hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian migrants in conditions so abusive and inhuman that many developed serious long-term physical and mental conditions as a result. 

“Now, more than 30,000 Ethiopian nationals are detained in those same conditions and are at risk of facing the same fate.

“Saudi Arabia is one of the richest countries in the world, yet it is cramming migrants in dirty detention centres and refusing to provide them with proper medical care, food, and water. 


“Saudi Arabia has been aggressively investing in re-branding its image as part of its ambitions to attract foreign businesses and investors, but beneath this glitzy veneer is a story of horrific abuse against migrants who have been toiling away to help Saudi Arabia realise its grand vision.”

Deaths in custody

Amnesty also documented cases of deaths in custody in Al-Kharj and Al-Shumaisi. Former detainees reported ten deaths between April 2021 and May 2022, many of which occurred after a denial of medical care, including in one case after injuries sustained from beatings. Amnesty is calling on the authorities to investigate these deaths and any links to a denial of adequate medical care.

Mahmoud, a former detainee who shared a cell with a man who was vomiting blood, said the authorities only offered him paracetamol. The man died the day he arrived back in Ethiopia after being forcibly returned. One video, verified by Amnesty, shows a group of men gathered around what appears to be a body wrapped in a plastic bag as the men perform a Muslim funeral rite.


Hussein, a former detainee, said a cellmate died after the two of them were beaten:

“He had pain in the ribs and was not taken to a hospital. We begged prison guards to take his body after he died ... They took out his body two days later.”

Forced returns to Ethiopia

There are an estimated ten million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, with the plight of undocumented Ethiopian migrants a particular concern after an announcement in March this year that the Ethiopian and Saudi authorities would return at least 100,000 Ethiopians to Ethiopia by the end of 2022. Since 2017, Saudi Arabia has ramped up the arrest and forced returns of Ethiopians as part of a crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. Under Saudi Arabia’s abusive “kafala” labour system, undocumented migrant workers often have no pathway to regularising their residency, and even documented workers risk losing their legal residency if they leave abusive employers. Currently, at least 30,000 Ethiopian migrants are detained in Saudi Arabia solely for lack of residency documents. 


Faced with indefinite arbitrary detention under abusive conditions and with no means of challenging their detention, many of detained migrants feel they have no choice but to agree to return to Ethiopia. In Amnesty’s view, the migrants’ coercive environment makes it impossible for them to make a voluntary decision and their returns to Ethiopia amount to forced ones. The Saudi authorities’ failure to ensure a case-by-case assessment of any potential protection needs also means that some individuals may face abuse on return. Amnesty also found that unaccompanied minors and pregnant women were among those being forcibly returned.

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