Last month a Sunday Telegraph investigation found that hundreds if not thousands of mainly Ethiopian migrants are being kept in appalling conditions in centres across the Gulf Kingdom as part of a drive to stop the spread of coronavirus.
Using smuggled phones detainees detailed horrific accounts of disease, beatings and suicide.
But recent statements from Abdo Yassin, Ethiopia’s Consul General in Jeddah suggest that the centres highlighted by the Telegraph are just the tip of the iceberg.
Last week, Mr Yassin said that dozens of prisons are housing Ethiopians and that about 16,000 Ethiopian migrants are being held at just one detention centre at Al Shumasi, near the holy city of Mecca.
“Jeddah has over 53 prisons. Ethiopians are held in every one of them,” Mr Yassin told the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation. “If you take the one at Al Shumaisi…located around 60km from Jeddah, there are about 16,000 Ethiopians kept in the prison and the holding cells.”
Last month, the Telegraph was able to communicate with migrants at the centres at both Al Shumasi and Jazan, a port city on the border in Yemen. It is unclear how many people are being held at the detention centre at Jazan.
However, satellite images of the Jazan centre show more than a dozen buildings there. There are believed to be several other centres across the Kingdom. Earlier this month, under international pressure from human rights groups, Western politicians and the United Nations, Saudi Arabia said it would investigate all of its detention centres.
However, migrants told the Telegraph that since news of their plight went around the world, they have been beaten brutally by prison guards who scoured the rooms for smuggled phones. They say they were stripped naked and that some of them were put in handcuffs during the searches.
The Ethiopian government in Addis Ababa has come under mounting pressure at home to repatriate the migrants stuck in the centres after the Telegraph revealed that officials tried to stop the migrants communicating with the outside world, most probably to avoid a diplomatic fall out with oil-rich Saudi Arabia.
Last week, nearly 150 women and children were repatriated to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia. This was initially greeted as good news.
However, an Ethiopian government document from August shows that their repatriation was part of an arrangement between Saudi and Ethiopian authorities, which required migrants to purchase their own one-way tickets home from Ethiopian Airlines: something that the vast majority of impoverished migrants cannot do.
To make matters worse, Ethiopia’s embassy in Riyadh announced on Monday that Saudi immigration authorities had voided the agreement, leaving Ethiopian migrants with no remaining avenues to escape the Kingdom.
“It is shocking to hear that up to 16,000 Ethiopian migrants might be languishing in detention in the Al Shumaisi facility. Human Rights Watch and the Telegraph documented horrific conditions in two other centres in Jazan Saudi Arabia where thousands more Ethiopian migrants may also reside,” said Nadia Hardman, a researcher at the NGO Human Rights Watch.
“We repeat our call on Saudi Arabia to immediately release the most vulnerable and improve the miserable conditions for the thousands that remain.”