Ethiopian migrants held in Saudi Arabia call it 'hellish'

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 file photo, Ethiopian Zeynu Abebe, 19, sits in between two others upon his arrival after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A new report released Friday, Sept. 2, 2020 by Amnesty International describes widespread abuses and squalid detention conditions facing thousands of migrants from Ethiopia in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File)
FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 file photo, Ethiopian Zeynu Abebe, 19, sits in between two others upon his arrival after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. A new report released Friday, Sept. 2, 2020 by Amnesty International describes widespread abuses and squalid detention conditions facing thousands of migrants from Ethiopia in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene, File) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

ADDIS ABABA – From a filthy cell in Saudi Arabia, the Ethiopian migrant spoke on a smuggled phone, fearing to give his name. Some 300 countrymen are detained with him, he said. And no one knows when Ethiopia's government might bring them home.

“We are detained in a very inhumane condition, sleeping on waste overflowing from a nearby toilet. We really want to go back home but no one is assisting us, including Ethiopian officials,” he told The Associated Press from a detention center outside the Saudi capital, Riyadh. “We are beaten every day, and our only crime was seeking a better life in a foreign land.”

New details are emerging of the squalid detention conditions facing thousands of migrants from Ethiopia — men, women and children — some who were chased across the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia this year amid gunfire because of coronavirus fears.

A new report released Friday by Amnesty International describes widespread abuses in Saudi detention facilities, including beatings and electrocutions. Detainees described being chained together in pairs and being forced to use cell floors as toilets.

“Surrounded by death and disease, the situation is so dire that at least two people have attempted to take their own lives,” Amnesty researcher Marie Forestier says in the report. “Pregnant women, babies and small children are held in these same appalling conditions, and three detainees said they knew of children who had died.”

The abuses highlight one of the most popular, and most dangerous, migrant routes in the world. The Saudi government did not immediately comment.

Thousands of Ethiopians cross into Saudi Arabia every year after a journey across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden from Somalia or Djibouti and through conflict-torn Yemen, looking for better lives.

Amnesty International said thousands of Ethiopian migrants had been working in northern Yemen, earning money to pay for their passage to Saudi Arabia. “When the COVID-19 pandemic escalated, Houthi authorities began ordering migrant workers to go to the border, where they reportedly became caught in crossfire between Saudi and Houthi forces,” the new report says.