Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans have been detained in Ethiopia after being deported from Saudi Arabia, suffering brutality from guards and atrocious conditions in both nations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Wednesday.
The Tigrayans appear to have been caught up in both a tough expulsion program by Riyadh and a crackdown by Ethiopia's government during conflict in their northern homeland region.
The New York-based rights group reported a litany of abuses against the Tigrayans in Ethiopia, including being beaten by rubber or wooden rods, deprived access to families, forced to pick coffee for free, and denied food and water.
They were mainly rounded up for irregular immigration status in Saudi Arabia, where detainees also reported being beaten, forced to strip naked, and made to endure freezing temperatures and insufficient space to sleep, the report said.
"Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them," HRW researcher Nadia Hardman said. "Saudi Arabia should stop contributing to this abuse by ending the forced return of Tigrayans to Ethiopia and allowing them to seek asylum or resettlement in third countries."
The Saudi government's media office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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The government of Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, which has been battling the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) since late 2020, denies discriminating against Tigrayans "There are no ethnic-based prison facilities or places for deportees from other countries," spokesperson Legesse Tulu told Reuters.
The report was inaccurate, unsupported by evidence and based on people working for the TPLF, he said.
He said many Ethiopians have been detained under a state of emergency on suspicion of aiding what he called terrorists, the federal government's term for the TPLF, who have long ruled Tigray and dominated national politics before Abiy's rule.
'Bandits don't need food'
HRW said it spoke to detainees at five centers round Ethiopia who estimated that hundreds were held at each.
Trhas, a 33-year-old woman expelled from Saudi Arabia in December 2020, said she was held with 700 other deportees and then put on a bus.
"We asked the federal police for food and water and the toilet, but we were beaten if we left our seats. They said, 'Bandits don't need food'," HRW quoted her as saying.
Federal police spokesperson Jeylan Abdi said he did not know of returnees being arrested under such circumstances.
In similar testimony to that reported by HRW, a Tigrayan man who said he had been deported after two years in a Saudi jail told Reuters last month that he was picked up in an Addis Ababa reception center in November and accused of TPLF sympathies.
"We were taken somewhere south around Jimma (Oromia region), to a forest," he told Reuters. "People are sick, people are starving, I keep thinking that maybe I will die tomorrow."
Reuters has been unable to reach him since.
Another Tigrayan man living in the capital, who asked not to be named to avoid retribution, told Reuters that three of his relatives were deported from Saudi Arabia in July.
They were registered with the Ethiopian Red Cross on arrival, but then arrested at their homes after a state of emergency was declared on Nov. 2, he said.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants work abroad, especially in the Middle East. Last year, Addis Ababa said it would help repatriate 40,000 of its nationals in Saudi Arabia.
About 31.5% of the people returning to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia between April 2017 and August 2021 intended to return to Tigray, according to UN data.