A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday said that a deportation center in Riyadh is holding hundreds of migrant workers in inhuman and degrading conditions.
Detainees alleged to the HRW that they are held in extremely overcrowded rooms for extended periods, and that guards have tortured and beaten them with rubber-coated metal rods, leading to at least three allegations of deaths in custody between October and November.
"Saudi Arabia, one of the world's richest countries, has no excuse for detaining migrant workers in appalling conditions, in the middle of a health pandemic, for months on end," said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"Video footage of people crammed together, allegations of torture, and unlawful killings are shocking, as is the apparent unwillingness of the authorities to do anything to investigate conditions of abuse and hold those responsible to account."
In November 2020 Human Rights Watch spoke by telephone with seven Ethiopian migrants detained in a deportation center in Riyadh, and with two Indian men who were detained in the same facility before they were deported.
The majority of detainees were arrested by the authorities because they did not hold valid residency permits.
All interviewees said the Saudi authorities kept them in cramped, unsanitary rooms with up to 350 other migrants for months on end. Two men have been in detention for over a year.
Detainees explained they do not have enough room to all lie down, so some sleep during the day and others at night. Guards have not provided mattresses, just unclean blankets. Photo images and video corroborated the witness accounts, including two videos showing hundreds of men either standing or lying on top of each other in a crowded room with piles of rubbish and debris in the corner.
Despite being in the middle of a global health pandemic, detainees described how overcrowding has made social distancing and hygienic living impossible.
Interviewees said guards took their temperature at the outset of their detention, but no other measures are in place to minimize the spread of Covid-19.
Migrants said they shared between two to five toilets with 350 other detainees. The detainees said they had no access to shower facilities and no soap has been distributed. Detainees use the water from faucets above squat toilets for bathing.
Many migrants who spoke to Human Rights Watch said that contracting Covid-19 is their major concern, as they have observed other detainees showing Covid-19 symptoms.
The HRW report said that the Saudi authorities in the deportation center have apparently taken no special measures to protect groups at higher risk, such as older inmates and those with pre-existing medical conditions. Video footage received and analyzed by HRW depicts a South Asian man in the corner of a crowded detention room, visibly emaciated and unwell.
All interviewees said that guards wearing green, black, and grey uniforms had either assaulted them or that they had witnessed guards beating other detainees with rubber-coated metal rods. Beatings usually occurred when detainees asked for medical attention or complained about the conditions.
Six out of nine interviewees said that they witnessed guards beat migrants so severely that they were taken from the detention room and were never returned.
In one case, a 27-year-old man from Ethiopia witnessed the unlawful killing of three other detainees, two of whom were beaten so badly by the guards that they died immediately as a result of their injuries; the third died two hours later. Human Rights Watch was not able to independently verify the allegations.
Migrants also described verbal abuse by guards, including racial slurs, threats, and frequent swearing.
Ethiopian interviewees said they were the largest nationality among those being held in the same room with them; the others being Chadians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Nigerians, and Somalis.
HRW received and analysed footage of a room in the same deportation center filled with South Asian detainees and spoke to two migrant workers who were held in the same Riyadh facility, and recently returned to India, who said that South Asians, mostly Indians and Pakistanis, were held in separate rooms from the sub-Saharan African groups.
An October 2020 report estimated that there are approximately 10 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, spread over most sectors of work, especially the energy and service sector. Saudi Arabia has carried out regular sweeps of undocumented migrant workers, including major arrest campaigns beginning in November 2013 and August 2017.
About 260,000 Ethiopians, an average of 10,000 per month, were deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia between May 2017 and March 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Seven out of the nine migrants Human Rights Watch spoke to said they were undocumented when they were detained by the Saudi authorities. Two interviewees had valid residency permits, which the Saudi authorities ignored, including one Indian man who had worked in the country as an engineer for 25 years but was accused of selling vegetables, a profession he was told is restricted to Saudi nationals.
None of the detainees Human Rights Watch interviewed said they had been given an opportunity to challenge their arrest or detention, including those with valid residency permits. Prolonged detention without access to judicial review amounts to arbitrary detention and is prohibited under international law.
"Saudi Arabia should act fast to end the abusive conditions in the Riyadh deportation center and contain the potential of a devastating outbreak of Covid-19. Governments with nationals inside the facility should pressure the authorities and do all they can to facilitate voluntary repatriation," Hardman said.