Saudi Arabia, one of the wealthiest countries on earth, is keeping hundreds if not thousands of African migrants locked in heinous conditions reminiscent of Libya’s slave camps as part of a drive to stop the spread of Covid-19, an investigation by The Sunday Telegraph has found.
Graphic mobile phone images sent to the newspaper by migrants held inside the detention centres show dozens of emaciated men crippled by the Arabian heat lying shirtless in tightly packed rows in small rooms with barred windows.
One photo shows what appears to be a corpse swathed in a purple and white blanket in their midst. They say it is the body of a migrant who had died of heatstroke and that others are barely getting enough food and water to survive.
Another image, too graphic to publish, shows a young African man hanged from a window grate in an internal tiled wall. The adolescent killed himself after losing hope, say his friends, many of whom have been held in detention since April.
The migrants, several displaying scars on their backs, claim they are beaten by guards who hurl racial abuse at them. “It’s hell in here. We are treated like animals and beaten every day,” said Abebe, an Ethiopian who has been held at one of the centres for more than four months.
“If I see that there is no escape, I will take my own life. Others have already,” he added via an intermediary who was able to communicate on a smuggled phone.
“My only crime is leaving my country in search of a better life. But they beat us with whips and electric cords as if we were murderers.”
The images and testimony have sparked outrage among human rights activists, and have particular resonance in light of the global Black Lives Matter protests.
“Photos emerging from detention centres in southern Saudi Arabia show that authorities there are subjecting Horn of Africa migrants to squalid, crowded, and dehumanising conditions with no regard for their safety or dignity,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in the Middle East, after being shown the images by The Sunday Telegraph.
“The squalid detention centres in southern Saudi Arabia fall well short of international standards. For a wealthy country like Saudi Arabia, there’s no excuse for holding migrants in such deplorable conditions,” Mr Coogle added.
Oil-rich Saudi Arabia has long exploited migrant labour from Africa and Asia. In June 2019, an estimated 6.6m foreign workers made up about 20 per cent of the Gulf nation’s population, most occupying low paid and often physically arduous jobs.
The migrants work mainly in construction and manual domestic roles that Saudi nationals prefer not to do themselves. Many are from South Asia, but a large contingent comes from the Horn of Africa, which lies across the Red Sea.
The detention centres identified by The Sunday Telegraph house mainly Ethiopian men and there are said to be others packed with women.
Over the last decade, tens of thousands of young Ethiopians have made their way to the Gulf state, often aided by Saudi recruitment agents and people traffickers, in a bid to escape poverty back home.
They have been trapped partly as a result of the pandemic but also by the ‘Saudization’ of the kingdom’s workforce, a policy introduced by Muhamad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince who took power three years ago.