Ethiopian migrants who braved death-defying land and sea journeys to find work in Saudi Arabia are being deported en masse with nothing but the clothes on their backs, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.
A report based on interviews with deportees in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa documents exploitation, trafficking and violence that begins from the moment the migrants set off across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to reach the Arabian Peninsula.
It says officials in Ethiopia, Yemen and Saudi Arabia have done little to protect migrants from abuses at the hands of traffickers and security forces.
And it says they have failed to ease the return of hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians caught up in a large-scale Saudi deportation campaign that began in November 2017.
"Many Ethiopians who hoped for a better life in Saudi Arabia face unspeakable dangers along the journey, including death at sea, torture, and all manners of abuses," said Felix Horne, senior Africa researcher for Human Rights Watch.
"Saudi Arabia has summarily returned hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to Addis Ababa who have little to show for their journey except debts and trauma."
Ethiopians have long looked to Saudi Arabia as an escape from poor economic prospects and state repression, hoping to find work despite not having legal status.
To get there, they board overcrowded boats that are at constant risk of sinking during sea crossings that can last up to 24 hours.
One survivor told Human Rights Watch that he saw smugglers throw dozens of migrants overboard.
"The boat was in trouble and the waves were hitting it. It was overloaded and about to sink so the [middlemen] picked some out and threw them into the sea, around 25," he said.
Once in Yemen, the migrants are preyed upon by traffickers who kidnap them to extort ransom payments. The traffickers include Ethiopians who carry out beatings and torture.
Crossing into Saudi Arabia requires evading border guards who frequently open fire, killing many would-be migrants.
"At the border there are many bodies rotting, decomposing," said one 26-year-old migrant. "It is like a graveyard."
Despite the risks, up to half a million Ethiopians were in Saudi Arabia when officials there launched a crackdown on illegal migration in 2017, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Around 10,000 Ethiopians on average were deported monthly between May 2017 and March 2019, and Human Rights Watch says deportations have continued.
While the international community provides Ethiopia with some resources to help migrants sent back from Europe, those returning from Saudi Arabia are mostly on their own.
A spokesman for Ethiopia's foreign affairs ministry said Thursday that he was out of the country and could not comment. The Saudi government had also not issued any kind of response as of Thursday afternoon.