Returning after clampdown, former migrants say they were beaten, robbed and jailed, and that they will never go back.
When Abdallah Awele moved to Saudi Arabia from Ethiopia last year, he thought he would land a good job and earn enough money to send home to his family.
But instead, Abdallah, 21, said he was beaten, robbed and jailed for living in the country illegally.
“I wanted a good salary and a good life, that’s why I crossed the border,” he said.
“When I was in Saudi Arabia, I was successful, I was saving a lot of money and I had nice things. But I lost all of it. Now I am home and I won’t go back there.”
Abdallah was one of at least 23,000 Ethiopians living illegally in Saudi Arabia, and part of a group of close to 400 flown home on Friday after being expelled.
According to Ethiopian officials, three of their nationals were killed this month in clashes with Saudi police as the clampdown – set in motion after a seven-month amnesty period expired – got under way.
“I had 3,500 Saudi Arabian riyals (930 dollars, 690 euros). We were taken to prison, I lost my luggage, and all of my money was collected by the police,” Abdallah said.
“Even my shoes were collected by the police,” he said, speaking barefoot after leaving the airport with about 30 other men and showing scars on the back of his neck.
Abdullah, who had a job guarding animals, was jailed for six months – during which he said he was denied food and medical help.
Facing limited job prospects and harsh economic realities back home, large numbers of Ethiopian men and women head to the oil- and gas-rich Arabian peninsula every year seeking work.
The International Labour Organisation said many face physical and mental abuse, menial pay, discrimination and poor working conditions, and the Ethiopian government announced last month it was banning domestic workers from travelling to the Middle East to look for jobs after widespread reports of mistreatment.
Like Abdullah, Abdurahman Kamal said he too was beaten before being jailed for ten days. His employer revoked his salary and his visa before handing him over to the authorities, he says.
“The police asked for money but at that time I didn’t have the money, so the police beat me,” said Abdurahman, 21, who worked as a driver.
Now he says he is relieved to be home after three years in Saudi Arabia.
“I get to go back to my family,” he said, wearing a torn shirt that revealed his scarred torso.
With 91 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is the most populous country in Africa after Nigeria, but also one of the poorest. Ethiopia’s unemployment rate – 27 percent among women and 13 percent among men, according to the ILO – is the main driver for young people seeking better opportunities abroad.
The UN refugee agency says that over 51,000 Ethiopians risked their lives this year alone on the risky sea crossing across the Gulf of Aden, where reports are common of ships sinking or refugees drowning after being thrown out too far from the shore.
‘Thousands’ in prison
It was greener pastures that led Ahmed Abduljebar, 25, abroad three years ago. He moved to Yemen to work as a waiter and was arrested when he crossed into Saudi Arabia without a visa.
He said he was robbed and beaten before being jailed for three months, and complained that the Ethiopian embassy should have responded faster to release Ethiopians from prison.
Ahmed said while he is happy to be home, he “feels sick” knowing there are still thousands of Ethiopians still in jail.
While they now face the difficult task of finding work at home, they agree they have no plans to go back.
“I would never go back again to Saudi Arabia,” Abdurahman said.