A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report has highlighted the extreme plight of migrant workers detained and ill-treated in squalid detention camps in Saudi Arabia. The migrant workers, mostly Ethiopians, are held in extremely overcrowded rooms for extended periods and are subjected to frequent beatings and torture by the guards, the report said.

The Saudi guards torture the migrant laborers using rubber-coated metal rods, and at least three migrants have died in custody between October and November, HRW said.

The rights watchdog asked Riyadh to end the torture and unlawful killings and, ensure international standards in detention camps. It added that there is no justification for the oil rich nation to keep detainees in inhuman conditions.

King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia
King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia Wikimedia Commons

Inhuman Act by One of the Richest Countries

"Saudi Arabia, one of the world's richest countries, has no excuse for detaining migrant workers in appalling conditions, in the middle of a health pandemic, for months on end," Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

The report was prepared after the rights group talked to several migrant detainees from countries including Ethiopia and Indi in November 2020. It was revealed that the Saudi authorities kept migrants in in cramped, unsanitary rooms with up to 350 other migrants for months on end.

People Taking Turns to Sleep

Sometimes the detainees spend more than a year in such inhuman centers. The detainees said they did not even have enough space lie down, and that they take turns to sleep. Video footage showed hundreds of men either standing or lying on top of each other in a dirty, crowded room.

Singapore dormitory
Representational photograph - Migrant worker dormitory Wikimedia Commons

"Video footage of people crammed together, allegations of torture, and unlawful killings are shocking, as is the apparent unwillingness of the authorities to do anything to investigate conditions of abuse and hold those responsible to account," HRW said.

Even in the middle of a pandemic, the Saudi authorities are not taking any precaution to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and minimize deaths. According to the migrants, they share two to five toilets with 350 other detainees. There is no access to shower facilities and no soap has been distributed. They use water from faucets above squat toilets for bathing, the report added.

Tortured When Migrants Ask for Medical Help

The detainees, who are held for want of proper work documents, are tortured when they ask for medical attention or complain about the living conditions. Some of the detainees who were severely beaten up by uniformed Saudi guards were taken out of the room and never seen again, the report said, citing the inmates.

The report also highlights unlawful killings happening at the migrant camps. One detainee told HRW that he once saw the Saudi guards brutally beating up three men, two of whom died immediately, while the other died a few days later.

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Apart from Ethiopians, Chadians, Ghanaians, Kenyans, Nigerians and Somalis are also held in the camps in large numbers.

There are more than 10 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, which depends on migrant labor to power its oil-rich economy.

"Saudi Arabia should act fast to end the abusive conditions in the Riyadh deportation center and contain the potential of a devastating outbreak of Covid-19. Governments with nationals inside the facility should pressure the authorities and do all they can to facilitate voluntary repatriation," the rights group said.