Exploited, locked up, abandoned

Thousands of migrant workers from Africa are currently living in degrading conditions in detention centres in Arab countries. A human rights organisation has accused the Gulf States of racism that is "structured to perfection". By Bernd Dörries and Dunja Ramadan

By Bernd Dörries & Dunja Ramadan

Hundreds of men are lying on the bare floor, many naked from the waist up. The men have an apathetic air, and some of them have scars on their backs. According to the British broadsheet Daily Telegraph, these photos were taken in Saudi Arabia, one of the richest countries in the world, by young Ethiopian migrants who came to the Gulf to work. Now they are no longer needed and are being held captive in living quarters that resemble internment camps.

"It is hell; we are treated like animals and beaten every day," reports one young Ethiopian. Some of the inmates have committed suicide, he says, the few toilets that are available are flooded with faeces, and there is hardly any drinking water. The Ethiopian Consul General in Jeddah has reported that Saudi Arabia has 53 prisons where Ethiopians are being held. One of them houses as many as 16,000 people.

Human rights organisations have called on Saudi Arabia to ensure humane conditions and to close down the detention centres. The Saudi embassy in London promised to deal with the issue, remarking that the pictures were "shocking and unacceptable".

Racism "structured to perfection"

The images, however, corroborate what guest workers have been reporting for years from many Gulf states, where they are held like slaves by their employers and are often abused. Local legislation makes migrants almost totally dependent on their employers, often not granting even minimal labour rights.

Those who dare to complain are at best simply cast out. It is not possible for them to leave the country of their own free will because migrant workers have to hand over their passports to their employer. Violent attacks on employees are not uncommon. The Ethiopian newspaper Addis Standard reported that corpses of guest workers from Arab states regularly arrive at Addis Ababa airport.

Migrant workers from East Africa pass through Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia (photo: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo/picture-alliance)
Dangerous transit route for migrant workers from East Africa: on their way to Saudi Arabia, many Ethiopians pass through Yemen, which is ravaged by civil war. When they reach their destination, they often find work, but also misery as migrant workers are often mistreated and exploited.

Conditions in Saudi Arabia became so appalling that even the Ethiopian government decided to take action in 2016, prohibiting its citizens from going to work in the country. Last year, however, the ban was lifted again, not in all likelihood because circumstances had improved, but out of economic necessity. Millions of guest workers from Asia and East Africa work in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, mostly as domestic help or construction workers. Despite the poor pay, they are able to send money home – money that is urgently needed there.

Many of these migrant workers have, however, become superfluous in recent years, ever since Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman called on his countrymen to hire more Saudis in order to reduce unemployment. The Saudi government is now claiming that Ethiopia refuses to take back tens of thousands of its citizens, an allegation the government in Addis Ababa denies.

Racism in the Gulf States is "structured to perfection", writes Vani Saraswathi of the organisation Migrant Rights, which, among other activities, campaigns for the rights of migrant workers. In other wealthy countries, there are mixed neighbourhoods, public transport and facilities available to one and all. In the Gulf States, however, "segregation" prevails.Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the social climate has further deteriorated. African migrants tell of racist discrimination by their employers, who fear that their employees could potentially carry the virus. They forbid them to leave the house and meet friends. Or they simply throw them out altogether.

In Lebanon's capital, Beirut, some employers simply dropped off their Ethiopian workers in front of the country's consulate. This resulted in a sea of mattresses in the middle of the street in the Hazmiyeh district. In their midst were suitcases, water bottles and hundreds of women with nothing left to their name. For months they camped outside the consulate, wanting only one thing: to return home.

A young Ethiopian woman outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut (photo: Getty Images/AFP/J. Eid)
Exploited and abandoned: the on-going economic crisis in Lebanon has hit migrant workers from East Africa particularly hard. Because their employers can no longer afford to pay them, they are thrown out without a penny. Pictured here: a young Ethiopian woman outside the Ethiopian Consulate in Beirut

Unloaded at the consulate

Before the pandemic, they worked as housemaids; their number is estimated at almost 200,000 nationwide. Even before the coronavirus hit the country, large sections of the Lebanese middle class were already struggling to get by in the face of an economic and currency crisis. Now, however, many could no longer pay their maids, chauffeurs or nannies, leaving thousands of migrant workers out on the street without a penny – and certainly not a ticket home, which would cost several hundred dollars. "Lebanon has turned into a gigantic prison, far from home," writes the organisation Kafia, which is Arabic for "enough", which works to combat violence against women.

In recent weeks, many migrants have posted emotional messages on social networks, asking their governments to repatriate them. But in most cases, no help has been forthcoming. After the devastating explosion in Beirut, the Ethiopian Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner Abiy Ahmed, of all people, made a statement on the problem. He expressed his regrets and then wrote: "I encourage Ethiopians living in Beirut to contact the consulate so they can help each other in this ordeal." To many stranded Ethiopians this sounded like sheer mockery.

At the beginning of the week, 94 Ethiopian women who were living in Beirut under dire circumstances were able to return home. The costs were borne by aid organisations and individuals. A non-profit organisation thanked the donors: "Your generosity has put an end to these women's nightmares."

Bernd Dörries and Dunja Ramadan

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor