Nairobi – Thousands of ethnic Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia have been detained, abused or forcibly disappeared after arriving back home in Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch said in a new report on Wednesday.
The ethnic profiling and mistreatment of returnees detailed by HRW took place as the federal government fought Tigrayan rebels in a grinding year-long war that has cost thousands of lives and pushed many more people into famine.
Tigrayans repatriated from Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have migrated to seek work over the years, were singled out and held in Addis Ababa and elsewhere against their will upon returning, HRW said.
Others were prevented from returning to Tigray, the northernmost region of Ethiopia, after being identified at roadside checkpoints or airports and transferred to detention facilities, the report said.
“Ethiopian authorities are persecuting Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia by wrongfully detaining and forcibly disappearing them,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrants rights researcher at HRW.
The rights watchdog interviewed Tigrayans deported from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia between December 2020 and September 2021, during which tens of thousands were repatriated under an agreement between the two countries.
Some of the Tigrayan deportees detained after arriving in Ethiopia reported suffering physical abuse, including beatings with rubber or wooden rods.
Others were accused of colluding with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ran Tigray before the start of the war, and is now considered a terrorist group by Addis Ababa.
Two deportees told HRW they were taken with other men from migrants centres by police and bused to coffee farms, where they were put to work in terrible conditions for no pay and little food.
Many were denied contact with family, and feared their relatives thought they were still in Saudi Arabia.
“The Ethiopian authorities’ detention of thousands of Tigrayan deportees from Saudi Arabia without informing their families of their arrest or whereabouts amounts to enforced disappearance, which also violates international law,” the report said.
In late 2021 the United States and its allies called on Ethiopia to stop unlawfully detaining its citizens on ethnic grounds under a wartime state of emergency declared in November.
Ethiopia’s own state-affiliated rights watchdog estimated that thousands had been caught up in sweeps that appears to target Tigrayans on their ethnicity alone.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed sent troops into Tigray in November 2020 after accusing the TPLF of attacks on federal army camps.
The Nobel Peace laureate declared victory but rebel fighters hit back, recapturing most of Tigray, and pushing into neighbouring regions.
The rebels reportedly reached around 200km (125 miles) outside of Addis Ababa by road but in recent weeks pro-government forces have driven them back inside Tigray’s borders.
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