AFRICANGLOBE – During the past weeks, the story of the mistreatment of Ethiopians and migrant workers, including the deaths of three Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, has ignited a wave of protest and condemnation from Ethiopians across the world.
The Ethiopian government announced through various media outlets that it has strongly denounced the deaths, summoning the deputy head of the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Ethiopia and demanding explanations from the Kingdom. It also launched coordinated efforts to repatriate Ethiopians through its missions in Riyadh and Jeddah.
Twitter and Facebook accounts of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in particular are filled with stories and pictures that reveal the number of returnees and measures taken to enable them to settle permanently in their homeland.
These efforts to protect its citizens have been visible by the many Ethiopians who joined temporary centers set up in Saudi Arabia, and even more so by the nearly 10,000 Ethiopians who have been repatriated within a week. The continued media hype about the outrageous acts of ill treatment has, however, dwarfed these efforts with disturbing pictures, videos and alarming messages offsetting the fact that thousands have been returning home of their own volition.
Some of the demonstrations held across the world have reflected jingoistic messages fanning categorical revulsion against the Saudis, and at times Arabs in general, which are in fact exact replicas of the cries and actions of the few individuals who have been nurturing hatred against Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia.
Some went to the extent of excavating historical junctures to justify their claims that Ethiopians were the only target of mistreatment in the course of the deportation of migrant workers.
I’m not suggesting that the rape, torture or death of Ethiopians by security officials and civilians in Saudi Arabia is something to be condoned. Or that the calls for justice for Ethiopians and the mounting pressure on the government to respond quickly and properly to the crisis were misplaced.
We should be very clear from the outset that any violations of human rights in this context are outrageous and deplorable, whoever did them. That said, this piece aims to emphasize and underline some of the untold facts which have led to the current predicament of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia.
What’s moved me to comment is the absence of sober analysis amid all the exaggerated cries of social media activity. The current predicament of migrant workers is a matter that has been developing over a long period, an issue arising out of Saudi Arabia’s laws regarding illegal migrants.
As a person who lived in Saudi Arabia for several years I had a chance to witness the contribution of the laws to the current woeful situation of migrant workers. Specifically Saudi Arabia’s laws, which punish illegal migrants with hefty fines whenever they wanted to leave the country, encouraging migrant workers to stay underground rather than leave.
Most were simply unable to pay the required fines, which sharply increased the number of illegal workers. This contributed substantially to making Saudi Arabia host to close to nine million foreign workers in a country of 27 million.
Secondly, the Kingdom repeatedly failed to implement decisions to take action to deport illegal migrants. When the authorities announced that migrants would be given a few months to legalize their status, the majority simply didn’t take it seriously. This was hardly a surprise given the track record of the authorities and their frequent failure to take action previously.
Saudi Arabia’s inefficient bureaucracy was also a big hurdle for any speedy legalization of migrant workers, as we have seen in the last few months. Originally the authorities gave a three month period to legalize the status of migrant workers. This was extended for another four months at the request of a number of countries from which workers originated, including Ethiopia.
The final deadline was November 3. In fact, migrant workers were unable to make much progress in the first three months as the Saudi institutions didn’t start operations for most of this period.
Equally, their ineffective, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy was neither ready nor capable of handling such a huge number of migrants. The fact that the Saudi sponsors of workers requested large sums of money from migrant workers to legalize their status, as well as the difficulty of finding sponsors in the case of absconding migrants, were major disincentives for workers to legalize their status.
Despite this, the Ethiopian missions in Riyadh and Jeddah were still able to legalize the status of nearly 40,000 workers over the past seven months. That was actually very impressive. This raises the question of why so many of us failed to legalize our status? The missing factor is that the amnesty excluded those who entered the country illegally.
Its application was confined only to those who were working with a different sponsor than the one that brought us to Saudi Arabia, or those who came for the Hajj before 2008 and then remained in the country. This means that people who crossed the borders illegally, came as tourists or to visit relatives for whatever reason couldn’t legalize their status in whatever time was added to the amnesty.
In other words, the failure of people, whether from Ethiopia, India, Bengal or anywhere else wasn’t a failure of their missions nor, actually, of the Saudi authorities. Blaming the Ethiopian government is hardly correct with reference to these migrant workers.
Nor is it true to say that the attacks have been specifically targeting Ethiopians. During the troubles in Manfuaa there were clashes between Sudanese and security forces. One died and seventeen were injured. There were no Ethiopians involved then. We must protest any violations of rights but it isn’t sensible, or helpful, to start trying to analyze the predicament within the rubric of nationalistic rivalries and inventing racial overtones.
The mistreatment of Ethiopians is a human rights issue and nothing more. Deaths of innocent Ethiopians shouldn’t be traded for short term alleged political gains. To demand respect for Ethiopians is a human rights issue which shouldn’t involve geopolitical and historical narratives. Nor should we forget nothing bars a country from deporting citizens without depriving them of their inalienable civil rights.
At the same time, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that the fight against human trafficking is a global phenomenon. It’s something that needs concerted action, the management of migrant workers through a proper and careful recruitment process, harmonized laws and other controls. It’s my view that any discussion of migrant workers, Ethiopian or otherwise, deserves a sober analysis of the matter, not hysterical exaggerations.
By: Daniel Hailu