After two years as a domestic worker for a Saudi Arabian family, Mahlet Wolde Aregay was sent to jail last month. Without taking any tests, she says, the Saudi authorities accused her of being a likely carrier of the novel coronavirus.
They bundled her onto a crowded cargo plane with hundreds of other Ethiopian migrants, some of them crying and screaming, and deported Ms. Mahlet to her homeland. She was given no chance to collect her belongings or say goodbye to the family with whom she had lived.
"I was humiliated,” she told The Globe and Mail. “What was done to some of us was ugly and cruel. I came back to Ethiopia with almost nothing – not even my cellphone.”
More than 5,000 migrants have been forced to return to Ethiopia in a wave of mass deportations from Middle Eastern and African countries in recent weeks as the pandemic provokes a rise in fear and suspicion of foreigners.
The fears may be irrational. Ethiopia has recorded only 162 cases of the coronavirus, while Saudi Arabia has almost 32,000 confirmed cases. But impoverished migrant workers often suffer from discrimination in wealthy Middle East countries.
This could be just the beginning of a far bigger deportation plan. As many as 200,000 Ethiopians could be forced to leave Saudi Arabia, news agency reports say. The UN says the Saudi government was planning to send hundreds of migrants back to Ethiopia every day until the plan was temporarily halted.
The deportations are a threat to public health, since they greatly heighten the risk of spreading the virus, United Nations officials have said. There are also concerns that quarantine sites when they arrive in Ethiopia could be unsafe because of overcrowding.
“Large-scale migratory movements which are not planned make the transmission of the virus much more likely to continue,” Catherine Sozi, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Ethiopia, told the Reuters news agency.
The African Union, in its own protest statement, has called for respect for the “rights and human dignity of migrants” during the pandemic.
“Unilateral mass deportations worsen the desperate situation of migrants and can pose immense challenges to countries of origin of the migrants,” the African Union statement said.
In the first half of April, there were one or two deportation flights from Saudi Arabia to Ethiopia almost every day. The migrants were required to go into quarantine sites for 14 days after they returned. Most were quarantined in converted university buildings, where they received blankets, sheets and soap from the UN migration agency.
The deportations from Saudi Arabia were eventually halted, and most of the migrants have now been released from quarantine. Only about a dozen of the deportees have tested positive for the virus in Ethiopia. But officials are awaiting an expected second wave of deportations.
“Per agreement between both nations, and to allow Ethiopia to prepare for the return of more of its citizens, the operation was temporarily suspended,” Ethiopian director-general for consular affairs Yohannes Shode told The Globe.
“About 2,800 citizens have returned within the last month, and we anticipate the operation to proceed and to receive more of our citizens.”
Thousands of other Ethiopian migrants have been deported from East African and Middle Eastern countries in recent weeks. More than 2,400 have been sent back from Djibouti alone, according to UN estimates.
The Saudi Arabian government has denied mistreating or forcibly expelling the migrants, saying that the Ethiopian government had agreed to the repatriation flights. But the migrants describe poor conditions on the flights and a lack of human rights.
Ms. Mahlet, 22, said the Saudi authorities accused her of being an illegal migrant, even though she had a work visa. The police did not bother to contact her employers to verify her legal status, she said.
They also accused the migrants of being a suspected health risk during the pandemic, but Ms. Mahlet believes that was just a ruse. “If it was about health issues, the first thing they would have done was test us. We were never tested. I was simply deported because of an assumption that every Ethiopian was illegal and a burden to Saudi society.”
The migrants were put at risk of the coronavirus because of the crowded conditions on the cargo plane in the deportation flight, she said.
Workinesh Ayele Girma, a 25-year-old Ethiopian migrant, borrowed money last year to pay US$2,000 to a labour agency for the right to work in Saudi Arabia. But in mid-April, she was ordered onto a cargo plane and deported to Ethiopia so suddenly that she wasn’t able to collect the thousands of dollars that her employers owed her.
“I was thrown out like an animal,” she told The Globe. “It was inhumane and humiliating.”
The migrants were not tested for the coronavirus, but were escorted to the deportation flight by Saudi officials who wore head-to-toe protection, she said. Until they were on the plane, nobody told them where they were going, she said.
“We all cried our way to Ethiopia, because most of us had been trying to negotiate the money owed to us by our employers. It kills me to return home, defeated and heartbroken. I’m still in debt, and it drives me crazy to think about it. I’ll probably go back to being the housemaid that I was before I left."
Samuel Getachew is Special to The Globe and Mail
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