Saudi Arabia is detaining hundreds of mainly Ethiopian migrants in squalid conditions in Riyadh, Human Rights Watch said, quoting some as saying they had been tortured or beaten, and that at least three had died since October.
In a report issued on Tuesday, the rights group said it had spoken last month to seven Ethiopians now being held, and to two Indians recently deported, all of whom said they had been kept in small rooms in a detention centre with up to 350 others.
Some of the detainees said they had been tortured or beaten by guards with rubber-coated metal rods. Two said they had been held for more than a year.
The detainees said no measures were taken to minimise the spread of COVID-19, and some inside the facility had shown symptoms of the virus.
Detainees said they are held in extremely overcrowded rooms 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.
The majority of them were arrested because they did not hold valid residency permits.
Many migrants said that contracting COVID-19 is their major concern, as no measures to ensure social distancing or hygienic standards were taken. They had no access to shower facilities nor soap and hundreds share between two and five toilets.
They said they do not have enough room to all lie down, so some sleep during the day and others at night, while no mattresses were provided.
“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 HRW.
In October, an Amnesty International report said Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi detention centres described torture by electric shock and beatings, deaths and suicide attempts, crowded cells and lack of food.
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 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 Human Rights Watch depicts a South Asian man in the corner of a crowded detention room, visibly emaciated.
Migrants also described verbal abuse by guards, including racial slurs, threats, and frequent swearing.
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.
The Saudi government should investigate allegations of abuse and unlawful killings at migrant detention centers, and appropriately discipline or prosecute those found responsible.
The absolute prohibition on torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in international law is guaranteed in the UN Convention Against Torture, to which Saudi Arabia is bound.
Torture includes the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering by a public official for purposes such as intimidation and coercion.
The Special Rapporteur on Torture has deemed administration of severe beatings a form of torture, as has the Human Rights Committee.
Saudi Arabia should open up its detention and deportation centers to inspection by experts in torture prevention.
Beyond this, Saudi Arabia should ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture which make such inspections mandatory.
UNHCR should have complete access to assess any claim for refugee status and should also assess whether any organized return facilitated by the UN’s humanitarian agencies is voluntary.
The Ethiopians interviewed by Human Rights Watch all expressed concern about returning to a country currently facing a rights crisis as well as conflict in the eastern region of Tigray which has resulted in mass displacement into neighboring Sudan.
The Saudi government should sign and ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
It should enact refugee law consistent with international standards, and establish fair asylum procedures for foreign nationals who may be at risk of persecution in their home countries, Human Rights Watch said.
In the meantime, it should allow UNHCR to exercise its mandate to determine the refugee status of asylum seekers and facilitate durable solutions for those recognized as refugees, including, where appropriate, integration in Saudi Arabia.
“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.
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