London (Agenzia Fides) - In Saudi Arabia, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic difficulties caused by the collapse of the oil price have affected migrant workers, especially those from Africa. In the midst of the health emergency, dozens of male and female workers have been abandoned by their employers without wages, documents or subsistence of any kind. Many of them, according to Human Rights Watch in a report published last December, are held in detention centers. The detention of migrants in deplorable facilities in Saudi Arabia is a longstanding problem, according to the report. As early as 2014, Ethiopian citizens reported that thousands of foreign workers were held in makeshift detention centers, without adequate food and shelter, before being deported. In 2019, Human Rights Watch then identified a dozen prisons and detention centers where migrants were held for various periods.
In August 2020, Human Rights Watch identified three detention centers in Jizan and Jeddah province, where thousands of Ethiopian migrants were held in deplorable conditions.
According to the International Labor Organization, there are at least 35 million migrant workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, Lebanon and Jordan. They come mostly from Asia and Africa. Those from Africa are mostly Egyptians, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Kenyans, Somalis and Ugandans. They are mostly employed in menial jobs: housekeepers, bricklayers, service personnel, etc. The specialized website migrant-rights.org has calculated that in Saudi Arabia 99.6% of foreign workers are of foreign origin and, according to the ILO, foreigners work more than 60 hours a week.
"Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali men - explains to Agenzia Fides Abba Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest who has been following immigration issues for years - are employed above all on construction sites without any protection and, above all, without documents.
The situation of women is different. They come legally through kafala. It is a legal system whereby women apply to the agencies of the country to which they are going to emigrate and find them a sponsor (kafeel) in exchange for compensation. Women often go into debt with the hope of changing their lives. And they find themselves slaves". Normally, in fact, the sponsor is the employer, who pays for the work permit and is responsible for the visa and legal status. Therefore, he has enormous power over them. A power that goes beyond the relationship between employer and employee and that often leads to abuse and mistreatment.
"Women are considered as slaves - continues Abba Mussie -. Often they cannot even leave the house. With the coronavirus crisis, many employers have fired them, leaving them in an illegal immigrant status. Some of them have fallen into the prostitution trap and are forced to work in closed houses in the Gulf countries".
Many women and men are locked up in prisons where living conditions are difficult. "In recent months - concludes Abba Mussie - Saudi Arabia alone has expelled 150,000 Ethiopians. I had the opportunity to hear some Eritrean prisoners describe the prisons to me as overcrowded, dirty places where migrants live in contact and transmit numerous diseases. Among which also the coronavirus". (EC) (Agenzia Fides, 27/3/2021)