Ethiopians Race to Leave Saudi Arabia as Mass Deportations Loom

FILE – Ethiopian women wait in a line at custom area as they arrive at Bole International Airport in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, Dec. 18, 2013, after they were deported from Saudi Arabia.

Thousands of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia are in a state of limbo as they try to return home after being ordered to leave the Gulf state.

On March 29, Saudi Arabia launched a campaign it dubbed “Nation Without Violations,” giving all foreign immigrants living there illegally 90 days to leave without incurring a penalty. They were told they could return later after applying and going through the immigration process.

As of the beginning of July, 111,000 Ethiopians had agreed to leave Saudi Arabia and 45,000 had successfully returned to Ethiopia, according to Meles Alem, the spokesperson of the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Many remained stranded, however, due to an inability to get a seat on overbooked flights.

Saudi government officials believe there are about 400,000 Ethiopians living illegally in the country. Most are employed as maids or other domestic workers; they have few legal rights and endure widespread abuse.

In early July, VOA Amharic reported that 110 people were stuck for days in a community center in Riyadh, waiting for open seats on flights back to Addis Ababa.

“It is difficult for me to sit or sleep. There is another pregnant woman here and what is going to happen to us?” the woman told Gabina, VOA’s Amharic youth program.

Another woman said, “We don’t have proper sanitation here. About 20 people are jammed in one room.”

Most of those who were stranded last week have returned to Addis, but many more are trying to get out as soon as possible.

It is unclear how many foreign workers will be affected. Middle East Monitor reported there are about 5 million illegal foreign workers living in the country. Saudi Arabia’s total population is 32 million, and it relies heavily on imported labor.

Government officials have said the move will improve job prospects for Saudis. It will “revive the economies of companies and establishments and protect small businesses and projects from illegal expats, while also reducing unemployment rates and creating a safe economic and social environment,” said Turki Al-Manea, general director of the branch of the ministry of labor and social development in Qassim, according to Arab News.

The head of the Ethiopian community in Riyadh, Shawel Getahun, warned that people should not try to start the process of traveling now.

Read more at VOA

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