A prominent human rights organisation has accused of Saudia Airlines of being complicit in the forced and summary deportation of thousands of Ethiopian refugees from Saudi Arabia back to Addis Ababa. Many of the migrants are said to be held in overcrowded and abusive prison conditions throughout Saudi Arabia before being placed on special charter flights operated by the government-owned international airline.
The accusations come as Saudia Airlines continues an ambitious transformation programme in a bid to build international market share and turn itself into a big player in the Persian Gulf aviation sector. The carrier is aiming to become a ‘Five Star’ airline and has taken delivery of 88 brand new aircraft in just three years.
According to New York City-based Human Rights Watch, the airline has assisted in the forced removal of around 500,000 Ethiopian refugees in the last two years alone. It’s believed that as many as 10,000 Ethiopians are being deported from Saudi Arabia every month.
Official figures from Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry claim 3.6 million people have been arrested for breaking labour and residency laws in the last year. Human Rights Watch says many migrants fleeing Ethiopia are doing so because of drought, human rights abuses and economic difficulties.
Many make the perilous journey through Yemen, crossing illegally into Saudi Arabia via the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden with the help of smuggling gangs who use violence or threats to extort ransom money from migrants’ family members. The situation is said to have been made worse by the political situation in Yemen and ongoing civil war which Saudi Arabia has become involved in.
Saudia Airlines has been operating special charter flights from larges cities including Jeddah to Addis Ababa where the deported migrants are offloaded in a quiet cargo area away from the gaze of travellers at the main passenger terminal. The special flights have been operating for months but are said to have been suspended during Ramadan.
During this time, some deportees were placed on scheduled Ethiopian Airlines commercial flights and were allowed to disembark at into the main terminal.
Human Rights Watch says of the situation…
“All of those deported said that they returned to Ethiopia with nothing but the clothes they were wearing, and that Saudi authorities had confiscated their mobile phones and in some cases shoes and belts.”
“Over 8 million people are in need of food assistance in Ethiopia, a country of over 100 million. It hosts over 920,000 refugees from neighboring countries and violence along ethnic lines produced over 2.4 internally displaced people in 2018, many of whom have now been returned.”
Human Rights Watch accuses Saudi Arabia of not giving migrants the opportunity to challenge their deportation and claims the country has not put in place a proper asylum system. Saudia Arabia is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention which governs the work of the UN Refugee Agency.
In a statement to the United Nations, a spokesperson for the Saudia Arabian government said it takes seriously its “humanitarian responsibilities towards the world nation, especially those who need humanitarian, developmental and charitable assistance.” Along with providing humanitarian aid valued at more than $1 billion over the last eight years, the spokesperson said that Saudi Arabia currently hosts over 1 million refugees within its borders.