Before the deterioration of the security situation in Yemen, that occurred as the Houthis seized control of the majority of northern Yemen, thousands of Ethiopians left their country to Yemen due to famine in the Horn of Africa in the early 2000s.
The government of former Yemeni president Ali Abdallah Saleh faced international rights criticisms because it turned a blind eye to the way tribal leaders dealt with Ethiopian workers in Yemen. International rights organisations described the practices against Ethiopians as a kind of “slavery”.
Saudi Arabia launched a campaign in 2017 against illegal workers, numbering over a million, driving rights organisations to accuse the kingdom of “mistreating” them, an accusation Riyadh denied.
The majority of criticisms directed against Saudi Arabia in this regard concerned illegal Ethiopian workers, that numbered 200,000 in 2017, according to a US State Department report. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported their numbers could well surge to 500,000
Sources told the UK’s Telegraph newspaper that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal Ethiopian workers detained in Saudi Arabia. Observers believe the Houthis in Yemen expelled Ethiopians to force them to head to Saudi Arabia in the hope of causing a crisis for Riyadh that has been waging a war against the Iran-led Houthi militias for years.
Many of the detained Ethiopians had been working in Yemen for many years before they entered the kingdom illegally, and were detained in the southern Jazan Prison.
There are still 2,000 Ethiopians stranded on the Yemeni side of the border with Saudi Arabia without food, water, or medical care, stated the IOM early last month.
The international criticisms didn’t stop Ethiopians from escaping the harsh conditions they were facing in their country, opting to travel to Yemen and sneak through its borders to neighbouring Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia.
For almost two decades, the Ethiopian government didn’t manage to meet the minimum international requirements to limit the illegal immigration of its people to Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti, and across the sea to Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
In the past few years, news agencies cited anonymous sources as saying that Riyadh was returning 10,000 Ethiopians per month to their homeland.
However, due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, such operations slowed down.
In 2017, Riyadh decided to combat illegal immigration to regulate its large labour market which is primarily manipulated by foreigners. Decades ago Saudi Arabia started the gradual replacement of foreign labour, the majority of whom came from Egypt, the Indian subcontinent and Sudan, to reduce unemployment among Saudi youth.
Amnesty International earlier requested the Ethiopian government facilitate the voluntary return of its nationals.
Ethiopia was preparing to return 2,000 detained nationals by mid-October, Tsion Teklu, state minister of foreign affairs in charge of Diaspora affairs, told AFP last month. Teklu added that Ethiopians held in Saudi detention centres reached 16,000 earlier in the year, but that the numbers had reduced since.
Three immigrants told AFP last month that Ethiopian diplomats who visit detained immigrants warned prisoners against revealing the location of the detention centres.
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry denied it refused to provide aid to the helpless immigrants, blaming human traffickers for the immigrants’plight.
The blackout Ethiopian diplomats demanded of detainees is the same policy Addis Ababa applies to fend off increasing protests on its soil.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly