Battered Ethiopians return to a warm welcome after Saudi Arabia’s clampdown on foreigners.
Abdulla Shahmola trudges up the road leading from Addis Ababa airport to the outskirts of the city, his battered black suitcase balanced precariously on his head. Weariness and relief are etched into his delicate features as he heaves his heavy bag to the floor.
"I have so many possessions that I had to leave behind in Saudi Arabia – a television, a bed, a fridge," he laments, adding that he is thankful to be back in Ethiopia.
Shahmola is one of hundreds of men, women and children steadily streaming from the airport cargo terminal, where up to 20 flights have been arriving daily from Jeddah and Riyadh since November 13.
A kilometre's walk from the hastily erected transit centre, which has been processing some 7 000 returning migrants each day, a small crowd, held back by federal police officers in blue military fatigues, waits anxiously for a glimpse of a loved one.
According to government figures, 115 465 Ethiopians (72 780 men, 37 092 women and 5 593 children, 202 of whom were unaccompanied) had returned from Saudi Arabia as of December 8. The migrants, most of whom didn't have work permits, were expelled after a tightening of labour regulations in March and the expiration of an amnesty for illegal workers on November 4.
More than a million migrant workers from across Asia have been expelled from the kingdom as part of the crackdown, which is designed to get more Saudis into jobs and reduce the high unemployment rate. The crackdown has triggered clashes in the capital, Riyadh, in which three Ethiopians were reportedly killed.
"They beat us," alleges Shahmola. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out his cellphone and opens images of badly beaten Ethiopians, singling out one man whose throat appears to have been slit. His friends do the same, thrusting forward their phones. "I saw people killed. They are murderers," he hisses.
He says he spent the past month in an overcrowded Saudi prison. "There were 900 people in one place. After 24 hours they gave us small things – water, a little food. They called the embassy." He claims they had to buy their own food and water at great expense.
Hawa Gizawi (20), who worked as a domestic servant in Oman and Saudi Arabia for the past four years, also maintains that she was mistreated while awaiting repatriation.
"I spent 15 days in prison in Jeddah – no food, no toilet, no hospital. They don't respect our human rights," she says, adding that her employers withheld her wages for a year. "I don't want to go back and I want to warn others not to go."
The International Organisation for Migration, which is supporting the government in dealing with the unexpected influx of returnees, has expressed concern about the physical and mental condition of the returnees, describing them as being "traumatised, anxious and seriously sick".
Merenasch Selfu, a nurse at one of the seven transit centres in Addis Ababa receiving repatriates, says many of her patients have upper respiratory tract infections. "The women say they were held in places with no latrines, poor sanitation and no air conditioning, and that is why they developed a cough."
She has also treated women with newborn babies as well as those in the late stages of pregnancy. Selfu estimates that 2% to 3% of those treated at the centre show symptoms of depression or psychosis and says she's examined women who claim to have been sexually abused.
The government is providing medical and psychological support for the migrants who need it, but officials admit to being ill-prepared for the massive influx of returnees.
Negussie Kefeni, co-ordinator of a transit centre in the heart of Addis Ababa, says one night the transit facility housed 1 399 women and 80 children – more than double the number it was intended to serve. Yet, clean mattresses and blankets have been neatly laid out, the floors swept and washed, the bathrooms disinfected and the water tanks replenished.
Rows of chairs are set up under the trees, and injera (flat bread) and wot (stew) are ready to be served. Hundreds of dignity kits containing hygiene necessities have been assembled, and a 900 birr (about R490) travel allowance awaits the arrivals.
As the first bus pulls up outside the centre and the burka-clad women disembark, volunteers and staff from nongovernmental organisations and government departments welcome the returnees to the penultimate stop on their traumatic journey home. – © Guardian News & Media 2013