Saudi Arabia is stepping up the deportation of thousands of Ethiopians, including some who are suspected of suffering from Covid-19, an act that some migrant advocates have described as reckless and inhumane.
Over the past 10 days, up to two flights a day carrying Ethiopian migrants have landed at Addis Ababa international airport, before returning to Saudi Arabia loaded with cattle exports.
A total of 2,968 migrants were returned in the first 10 days of April, according to one UN official who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak on the matter.
“This is simply not the moment for mass deportations from a public health perspective,” said Catherine Sozi, UN humanitarian co-ordinator for Ethiopia. “These mass deportations, without any pre-departure medical screening, are likely to exacerbate the spread of Covid-19 to the region and beyond.”
A senior Saudi official said the kingdom was not conducting forced repatriations but was co-ordinating with countries if migrants wanted to return home.
“We are co-operating with individual countries to say do you want your people back, are you able to receive them, what can we help do to enable them to come back,” the official said. “And where countries have responded positively, we are organising flights, some of it we pay for to send them home, but we are not forcing people.”
Foreign workers account for about a third of Saudi Arabia’s 30 million population and more than 80 per cent of the kingdom’s private-sector workforce. Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, has imposed a strict lockdown to contain Covid-19 that has shuttered many areas of the economy, but businesses are eligible for government support to pay salaries.
“I don’t think we will see in Saudi Arabia a significant number [of foreign workers] as a percentage going out,” the Saudi official said. “If we are to look at the big picture in the next three months, I would not imagine anything more than 10 per cent going out because of flight capacity.”