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04 August 2021 – Ethiopia

Z. Zelalem and W. Brown, “First Migrants Released from Saudi Detention Centres Arrive Home After Telegraph Investigation,” The Telegraph, 27 January 2021,
Z. Zelalem and W. Brown, “First Migrants Released from Saudi Detention Centres Arrive Home After Telegraph Investigation,” The Telegraph, 27 January 2021,

In 2020, the GDP highlighted several reports documenting the dire detention conditions and appalling ill-treatment that thousands of Ethiopian migrants had faced in Saudi Arabia (see, for example, 6 October 2020 Saudi Arabia update). Following international pressure–including from the European Parliament, as well as groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) who urged Saudi Arabia to release vulnerable detainees to protect them against COVID-19–Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia agreed in early 2021 to commence a repatriation programme. On 27 January 2021, the first group of 296 Ethiopian detainees were flown to Addis Ababa; since then, thousands more have been returned. According to MSF, during the first quarter of 2021 more than 60 percent of returnees evaluated by the organisation had spent between six months and one year in detention.

However, recent reports have highlighted that Tigrayans returned to Ethiopia have been separated from other returnees upon arrival and have been placed in Ethiopian detention facilities. In a tweet on 28 July, HRW Refugee and Migrant Researcher Nadia Hardman wrote: “Since 26 June 41000+ #Ethiopian migrants have returned from abusive detention in #SaudiArabia. The majority are from #Tigray. Reportedly most Tigrayan returnees are held in formal and informal detention sites in Addis & other regions w/ ltd access to families, food and water.” Their detention is believed to be part of a wider wave of round-ups of Tigrayans in Addis since late June 2021. According to a Tigrayan lawyer interviewed by Retuers, those detained “are not appearing before the court within (the legally mandated period of) 48 hours and we do not know their whereabouts – their family or lawyers cannot visit them.”

Commenting on the return of Ethiopians in a press briefing on 29 July, the country’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson stated: “To accommodate an operation of this magnitude amid the ongoing public health challenges caused by the COVID-19, the Government set up 8 reception centers in Addis Ababa to temporarily shelter the migrants as they transit to their final destinations. The government allocated personnel and financial resources to provide the migrants with health care, feeding, psychosocial support and physical safety. Our partners are running an additional 4 shelters providing similar services but focused on migrants with special needs such as unaccompanied and separated children, mothers with babies, and human trafficking survivors. Admission to the centers is on a voluntary basis and the migrants enjoy the freedom of movement, including the right to leave anytime.”

According to UNHCR’s operational update from Ethiopia on 14 July 2021), of the 2,07,549 people to have been vaccinated against COVID-19, 3,720 are refugees. UNHCR also reports that together with its partners, it has continued to “reinforce prevention measures in the refugee camps and sites hosting internally displaced persons (IDPs).”