RIYADH – Thousands of Africans have been trapped for months in horrifying detention centers in Saudi Arabia, driving many to commit suicide while others have died of heatstroke, according to a report. The Sunday Telegraph published cellphone images of shirtless, emaciated African men lying in tight rows on the floor in a bare room with barred windows.
One image showed a man who hanged himself from a window grate, while another showed what appeared to be a blanket-wrapped corpse in the middle of the room – a man the migrants say died of heatstroke.
“A young boy, about 16, managed to hang himself last month. The guards just throw the bodies out back as if it was trash,” one migrant was quoted by the newspaper as saying.
“Plenty of inmates are suicidal or suffering from mental illnesses as a result of living this for five months,” another stated, adding, “The guards mock us, they say ‘your government doesn’t care, what are we supposed to do with you?”
Most of the unfortunate men are Ethiopians who came to Saudi Arabia seeking to escape the poverty back home, some aided by Saudi recruitment agents or human traffickers. Other detention centers are said to house women.
When the coronavirus pandemic started, the Saudi government deported nearly 3,000 Ethiopians back to their home country, fearing they would act as spreaders of the virus due to their cramped living quarters. Another 200,000 were set to follow, some of whom ended up in the disease-ridden detention centers, the daily reported.
“We have been left to die here,” noted one migrant, who has not set foot outside the classroom-sized detention room since March.
“We eat a tiny piece of bread in the day and rice in the evening. There’s almost no water, and the toilets are overflowing. It spills over to where we eat. The smell, we grow accustomed to. But there’s over a hundred of us in a room, and the heat is killing us,” a young Ethiopian man was quoted as saying.
Other migrants announced that they are beaten daily with whips and electric cords.
The Telegraph quoted Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, as stating,
“Photos emerging from detention centers in southern Saudi Arabia show that authorities there are subjecting Horn of Africa migrants to squalid, crowded, and dehumanizing conditions with no regard for their safety or dignity.”
“The squalid detention centers in Southern Saudi Arabia fall well short of international standards. For a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia, there’s no excuse for holding migrants in such deplorable conditions,” he added.
The oil-rich Wahhabi kingdom depends on migrant labor from Asia and Africa, especially from the Horn of Africa, to work in construction and fill manual domestic roles, mostly very low-paid jobs. About 6.6 million foreign workers constituted 20% of Saudi Arabia’s population in June 2019, according to The Telegraph.