Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have voted with their feet to escape one of the most ruthless and brutal dictatorships in Africa. According to Ethiopia's “Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs”, approximately 200,000 women sought employment abroad in 2012, the vast majority of them in the Middle East. Many of these workers believed they were jumping out of the fire of dictatorship in Ethiopia, but found themselves smack in the middle of the Saudi Arabian frying pan.
It is no exaggeration to say it is open season on Ethiopian migrant workers and others seeking refuge in Saudi Arabia. Every day this month, Saudi police, security officials, mobs and vigilantes have been hunting Ethiopians in the streets, beating, torturing and in some cases killing them. The Youtube video clips of Saudi police torturing Ethiopians are shocking to the conscience. The video clips of Saudi mobs and vigilantes chasing, attacking and lynching Ethiopians in the streets requires no explanation. The photographic evidence of crimes against humanity committed against Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia today are surreal and beyond civilized comprehension.
Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia: Two sides of the same coin
Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia are two sides of the same coin. The Saudi and Ethiopian regimes are soul mates. The Saudi regime is infamous for its human rights record; the regime in Ethiopia has an equally atrocious record. The Saudi regime follows a policy of forcible deportation of Ethiopians from its territory using the most inhuman methods. The regime in Ethiopia follows a ghastly policy of forcible internal deportation (“resettlement”) of Ethiopians from one part of their country to another. The Saudi regime persecutes religious minorities; so does the regime in Ethiopia. The Saudi regime widely practices arbitrary arrests, detentions, torture and ill-treatment in their prisons; the regime in Ethiopia has perfected such practices in its prisons. The Saudi regime ended slavery in 1962 and continued to perpetuate it by calling it kafala (sponsored migrant workers who work in slave like conditions). In 2009, Bahrain's Labour Minister Majeed al-Alawi likened kefala to slavery. The 2013 Global Slavery Index reports that Ethiopia is among the top ten countries that account for three quarters of the world’s slaves with 651,000 people held in bondage. Human Rights Watch in its 2013 World Report described the human rights records of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia in nearly identical terms:
Ethiopian authorities continued to severely restrict basic rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly in 2012… Human Rights Watch continues to document torture at the federal police investigation center known as Maekelawi in Addis Ababa, as well as at regional detention centers and military barracks in Somali Region, Oromia, and Gambella.
The security forces responded to protests by the Muslim community in Oromia and Addis Ababa, the capital, with arbitrary arrests, detentions, and beatings… Federal police used excessive force, including beatings, to disperse largely Muslim protesters opposing the government’s interference with the country’s Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs… The Ethiopian government continues to implement its “villagization” program: the resettlement of 1.5 million rural villagers in five regions of Ethiopia ostensibly to increase their access to basic services. Many villagers in Gambella region have been forcibly displaced, causing considerable hardship… The government is also forcibly displacing indigenous pastoral communities in Ethiopia’s Lower Omo Valley to make way for state-run sugar plantations… In South Omo, around 200,000 indigenous peoples are being relocated and their land expropriated to make way for state-run sugar plantations…
With respect to Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch reports that
in 2012 stepped up arrests and trials of peaceful dissidents, and responded with force to demonstrations by citizens… As in past years, thousands of people have received unfair trials or been subject to arbitrary detention… Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention… Authorities continue to suppress or fail to protect the rights of 9 million Saudi women and girls and 9 million foreign workers…
Some 1.5 million migrant domestic workers remain excluded from the 2005 Labor Law. In years past, Asian embassies reported thousands of complaints from domestic workers forced to work 15 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and denied their salaries. Domestic workers, most of them women, frequently endure forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam… The chief mufti in March called for the destruction of all churches in the Arabian Peninsula…
What “foreign minister” Adhanom said and did not even know he said it
The response of the regime in Ethiopia to the horrendous situation of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia simply boggles the mind. Tedros Adhanom, the malaria researcher-turned-instant-foreign-minster and the man being groomed to become prime minister after the 2015 “election”, was befuddled, rambling, incoherent and virtually unintelligible when he spoke before the 3rd International Conference on Family Planning Conference held in Addis Ababa in mid-November. He brimmed with empty promises and hollow reassurances. He was grandiloquent about his readiness to “receive our fellow citizens home” and “global solidarity” :
As you know, from Saudi Arabia, you know, although it is just deporting Ethiopians only, we know, it is deporting other citizens…
I had the last 10 days, because in family planning, as we have been saying, we care for girls and women. I had calls straight from the camps, from women who are crying for help… We have already received hundreds. We are expecting tens of thousands and I would like to assure you that we are ready to receive our fellow citizens home.
I am so saddened and really depressed. That’s why I was not going to actually come here asking Dr. Kesete if he could excuse me because it is almost around the clock crisis management since this issue started. But in the name of global solidarity, even if we are going to deport illegals, we can do it smoothly because this is not war situation. It is maybe accepted when nations are at war to deport like this, in a very rapid fashion, people may understand, but not in peaceful situation.
… So I am sorry to start with this, it is something that has been bugging me for some time now.
Of course we have been working a lot on long term and short term solutions for long time in Ethiopia now because there are structural problems that we need to address to solve the problem once and for all. And you know Ethiopia is making progress and growing in double digits, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we know we can make it, and we know we can eliminate poverty. We are in the right direction but still we believe in global solidarity. But we never expected that this would happen.
For those who don’t know, I will share you one thing. When Prophet Mohammed was being chased immediately after he started Islam, the great religion, he sent his followers to Ethiopia…
… So, sorry I will stop here, but I am glad to share what I feel, to share with you my disappointment, to share with you how the last 10 days have been the most tragic in my life, which we never expected, a complete surprise…
It was truly sad to see Ethiopia’s “top diplomat” delivering such an incoherent, disjointed and muddled analysis and explanation about the monstrous crimes being committed against Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia. Foreign policy becomes a cruel joke in the hands (mouth) of a malaria researcher-turned-instant- foreign minister. To the extent anyone can reasonably make out Adhanom’s gobbledygook, the following strands can be discerned:
I. Adhanom said the indescribable tragedy of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia has been “bugging him for some time now”; and he is currently “saddened” and “depressed” by the circumstances of the Ethiopian “ women in the (Saudi Arabian) camps crying for help.” That must be the understatement of the century!
Perhaps Adhanom does not appreciate nuances in the use of English words, particularly colloquialisms. But as a top diplomat, he cannot be excused for his ignorant misuse of words (unless of course his choice of words and phrasing accurately express his views and feelings). To say what’s happening to the Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia has been “bugging me for some time now” is to say that their situation has been a source of annoyance and minor irritation. It is not a big deal. No top diplomat of any country on earth would react to the absolutely inhuman and barbaric treatment of its citizens in another country by saying the issue has been “bugging him for some time now.”
Adhanom may not understand but words mean everything in the diplomatic world. Words are the stock-in-trade of diplomats. Diplomats make the world stop and go by the choice of their words and their use and sometimes intentional misuse of language. For diplomats, words have artful connotation and denotation. The diplomat’s words are laden with open and hidden messages and encrusted with meaning signaling manifest and latent intentions. Wars have been fought and peace secured over semantics and the grammatical arrangement of words in diplomatic language. Above all, the words of a diplomat carry not only his personal feelings of “sadness” and “depression” but also the ethos (moral disposition), pathos (the depth of suffering) and even the bathos (sentimentality) of their nation.
When Adhanom says the situation of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia “has been bugging him for a long time”, he is conveying the most damaging message to the Saudis. He is telling them that the “race hunting” (to borrow a phrase from Ethiopia’s ceremonial prime minster) of Ethiopian migrant workers by Saudi police and vigilantes in the streets of Saudi Arabia is just a tempest in a tea pot. It will blow over.
The dehumanization and abuse of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia is a big, very big deal. Rush hour traffic “bugs” the hell out of me. Students who come to class without completing the assigned readings “bug” me to no end. What the Saudis are doing to Ethiopians does not “bug” me. It makes my blood boil. I am inflamed at the sight of the inhumanity and barbarity of the Saudi Police. I am outraged by the cruelty and brutality of Saudi mobs and vigilantes. I am shocked and appalled by the depraved indifference of the Saudi regime to the many acts of crimes against humanity committed against Ethiopian migrant workers. I am bitter and enraged about what the Saudi regime is not doing to ensure humane treatment of Ethiopian migrant workers as required by international law. I am outraged that the suffering of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia merely “bugs” Adhanom.
In the world of diplomacy, there is time to use soft and conciliatory diplomatic language and time to use strong and confrontational language. It is a great national tragedy that Adhanom does not seem to know the difference!
II. Adhanom said what is happening to Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia “may be accepted when nations are at war to deport like this in a very rapid fashion people may understand, but not in peaceful situation.” Adhanom is ignorant of the most elementary principles, rules and conventions of international law. He is clueless that the laws and customs of war prohibit deportation during war time, which are almost always undertaken for purposes of ethnic cleansing. During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early 1990s, large numbers of Bosnian Muslims, Croats, Serbs and Bosnians were removed from their traditional homes in a systematic campaign of deportation. That was a war crime. It is not something “people may understand”. The only exception to the prohibition on deportation and forcible transfers during war time is the evacuation of protected persons on grounds of security of the population or military imperative as defined and circumscribed under Article 49 of the Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (1949). It is also noteworthy that those Ethiopians in the “migrant population” who may seek asylum in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere are protected from deportation (“refoulement”) under the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees and Article 3 of the 1984 Torture Convention. It is a great national tragedy that Adhanom is untutored on the most elementary rules and principles of international law.
III. Adhanom believes the most urgent problem today in the Ethiopian tragedy in Saudi Arabia is facilitation of their exit out of that country. Stopping the violence, the rape, the murder and torture of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia today is the most urgent, critical, pressing, vital and weighty problem. Adhanom tried to be reassuring by declaring, “Of course we have been working on long-term and short-term solutions for a long time in Ethiopia now because there are structural problems we need to address for once and all.” The long and short-term solutions can wait. The daily abuse, mistreatment, injustice and crimes inflicted by the Saudi police, mobs and vigilantes cannot. What is happening to Ethiopians today in Saudi Arabia is a crises of epic proportions. It is a great national tragedy that Adhanom has no ideas, proposals or solutions to stop the violence immediately.
Adhanom said “we never expected that this would happen” to Ethiopian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia He said the whole thing was “a complete surprise” to him. He also said, “we have been working on long-term and short-term solutions for a long time”. This is not only self-contradictory but also an incredibly deceptive statement, and at best a manifestation of Adhanom’s naivite or ignorance.
It is impossible that the situation of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia could be a “complete surprise” to him because by April of 2013 Adhanom and his regime knew of the Saudi regime’s order notifying undocumented foreign workers to legalize their status or return to countries of origin and avoid deportation, imprisonment and prosecution. Adhanom’s regime, by its own admission, knew that there were large numbers of “illegal migrants” in Saudi Arabia. Adhanom was also aware that in July 2013 the Saudi regime had granted a grace period to undocumented workers and extended the effective date of its initial order to November 2013. Yet Adhanom’s regime did nothing to anticipate and plan for reasonably foreseeable events, including the need for potential mass evacuation of its citizens and confrontational actions by the Saudi police and mobs. How is it possible that Adhanom could not reasonable foresee the humanitarian disaster that befell Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia in November 2013?
It is obvious that Adhanom is clueless about proactive policy making. He has yet to learn that as the “top diplomat” he has to anticipate and act in advance to prevent and deal with reasonably foreseeable problems and issues. Goethe is right: “There is nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.”
What Adhanom did not say or do
Adhanom did not say what his regime is doing to stop the violence that is inflicted on Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia even though his regime has “been working on long-term and short-term solutions for a long time”. What is manifest is that Adhanom and his regime are standing by the sidelines twiddling their fingers and scratching their heads as their citizens are hunted down in Saudi streets like wild animals. Not only has Adhanom done nothing to stop the violence, he has not even taken the simplest (symbolic) actions to bring external pressure on the Saudi regime. Here are a few of the things Adhanom did not say or do:
Issue a strongly worded statement of condemnation. Adhanom said his regime has “has condemned Saudi Arabia for its brutal crackdown on migrant workers in the kingdom. This is unacceptable. We call on the Saudi government to investigate this issue seriously. We are also happy to take our citizens, who should be treated with dignity while they are there.” “Unacceptable” is the most condemnatory language Adhanom could muster in the face of the monstrous cruelty, unspeakable barbarism and horrendous brutality and criminality of the Saudi regime, its police force and mobs. “Investigation” is the most robust action Adhanom would like to see the Saudi regime take in the face of such horrifying crimes.
Adhanom is clueless that “unacceptable” in diplomatic language is a hollow and pointless word used by diplomats to suggest they are saying something when they are saying nothing at all. It is also a word that means everything: “There will be no consequences”. Such is the nature of diplomatic language. A single sentence can convey two mutually exclusive intentions. By telling the Saudi ambassador that what is happening to Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia is “unacceptable”, Adhanom is basically telling him that he is just window dressing the issue until it blows over and they will be able to continue with business as usual. Suffice it to say that “unacceptable” is “a word used by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” and everything!
Summon the ambassador of the host country and read him the riot act and demand an immediate stop to the police and vigilante violence. Adhanom summoned the Saudi Arabian ambassador and told him, “Ethiopia would like to express its respect for the decision of the Saudi Authorities and the policy of deporting illegal migrants. At the same time, it condemns the killing of an Ethiopian and mistreatment of its citizens residing in Saudi Arabia.” How servile and bootlicking can one become?! No country on earth that cares for its citizens would say it “respects” the policy of another state that victimizes its citizens. Adhanom is clueless that the issue is not about Saudi sovereignty over its territory or implementation of its immigration policy; it is about the Saudi regime’s actions and lack of actions that have made possible commission of crimes against humanity against large numbers of Ethiopian migrant workers.
Moreover, neither Adhanom nor his foreign ministry have publicly indicated that a diplomatic protest has been lodged with the Saudi foreign ministry. A “letter of protest” or “diplomatic note” is often presented by one state's foreign ministry to another unapologetically taking a stand against the foreign government's policy deemed offensive. A letter of protest would never use the word “unacceptable”. It would minimally mention something about “serious consequences” and “damaging relations” if things are not improved. Adhanom should make public the letter of protest he lodged with the Saudis, assuming he has done so.
Seek a resolution from the African Union condemning the human rights abuses of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia. Hailemariam Desalegn, the ceremonial prime minster of Ethiopia and the man keeping the seat warm for Adhanom until the 2015 “election”, is the current rotational chairman of the African Union. Hailemariam went through hell and high water trying to mobilize the African Union to stop the “race hunting” of African leaders by the International Criminal Court and engineer the withdrawal of African countries from the Rome Statute. When hundreds of thousands of his citizens are being “race hunted” in the streets of Saudi Arabia by police, mobs and vigilantes, he says nothing, does nothing. (By the way, where the hell is “prime minister” Hailemariam? Has anyone heard him talk about the "race hunting" of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia?)
Notify the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to immediately begin an investigation. The UNHCR is mandated by the United Nations to “lead and coordinate international action for the worldwide protection of refugees and the resolution of refugee problems.” It has investigative powers to look into the abuse and mistreatment of refugees. Adhanom did not say he has requested a UNHCR investigation, and there is no evidence he has made such a request. Moreover, the UNHCR has the logistical capability to help move migrant workers from conflict zones. For instance, in 2011 when violent anti-government protests erupted in Libya, the UNHCR facilitated the exit of tens of thousands of migrant workers into neighboring countries.
Lodge a complaint and request an investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Among the core purposes of the OHCHR is to “respond to serious violations of human rights” and “undertaking of preventive human rights actions”. Instead of asking the Saudi regime to initiate an investigation, Adhanom should have requested an investigation and intervention by the OHCHR and UNHRC.
Allow Ethiopians citizens to peacefully protest in front of the Saudi Embassy. The people of Ethiopia are humiliated and shamed by the crimes committed and continue to be committed against their brothers and sisters in Saudi Arabia. Adhanom spoke of the Prophet Mohamed sending his followers to Ethiopia to seek refuge. It is true Ethiopia was once hallowed ground where people sought refuge, comfort and assistance. Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders came to Ethiopia in 1962 to receive training. Mandela was given an Ethiopian passport by order of H.I.M. Haile Selassie so he could travel throughout the world freely. Ethiopians were once respected and honored the world over. Today, they are victimized and enslaved. They are beaten and jailed when they speak their minds. When they went to protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Addis Ababa, they were treated in the same way as the Saudi police treated the Ethiopians in that country. They were humiliated, beaten mercilessly and arrested. The spokesman for the regime, Shimelis Kemal, said the regime had to take action against the peaceful demonstrators because “many of the demonstrators carried anti-Arab messages that sought to distort strong relations between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.”
I guess no one can get in the middle of a tiff between soul mates. Let Adhanom and his regime take note: “Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury.”
No special task force assembled to deal with the emergency. When a crisis of the type facing Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia occurs, any regime that cares for its citizens will institute an emergency task force to coordinate the response. Civil society groups would be mobilized to help in the re-absorption of the returning migrant workers. International humanitarian organizations would be contacted to lend assistance. Adhanom and his regime are calculating that the situation of the Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia shall soon pass and they will continue business as usual handing over many more millions of hectares of land to Saudi investors.
What Adhanom will say
Adhanom and his regime have issued public assurances that they have set aside 50 million birr to repatriate and rehabilitate the returnees from Saudi Arabia. That is a drop in the bucket. That’s barely USD$2 million. There is no way they can transport, transition and relocate 200 thousand or so returnees on a measly $USD2 million. There is also no evidence that the regime has that kind of money to spare for the particular task. According to the July 2013 International Monetary Fund Staff Mission Statement, Ethiopia has foreign exchange reserves to barely cover 3 months of imports.
It is inevitable that Adhanom and his regime will soon be out in the international diplomatic streets with their begging bowls asking for aid to bring back the returnees and relocate them. Of course, they will have established their own non-profit organizations in advance to suck up any aid money that will be provided. Adhanom will be panhandling, “We need money, more money, mo’ money for our migrant workers coming from Saudi Arabia.” His flunkies will be all over the Diaspora panhandling for nickels and dimes just as they have done to “build” the Great Nile Dam or whether it is they call it. It will be a windfall for the regime’s NGOs. They are rubbing their palms and drooling at the prospects of millions of dollars in handout. Not so fast; they will probably not get much in handouts. That’s why I would not be surprised to see them standing in the streets of Saudi Arabia stretching out their hands and soliciting alms, “baksheesh, baba! baksheesh!"
I cry for our Ethiopia, the beloved country, but “there is a light at the end of the tunnel”
Adhanom said “there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and we know we can make it, and we know we can eliminate poverty.” I say there is a light at the end of the tunnel of tyranny and dictatorship in Ethiopia. There is a new day on the horizon. We must hold on, hold hands together and march straight out of the tunnel of two decades plus of oppression and denial of basic human rights.
Those who have read my analysis of the dire situation of Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia might say I am too legalistic and overly analytical. They may even accuse me of “over-intellectualizing ” a great human tragedy. They may say that because they don’t know how much I despair and cry for our beloved Ethiopia. In 1948, the same year Apartheid became law in South Africa, Alan Paton wrote in “Cry, the Beloved Country”, and expressed the deep despair he felt over the fate of South Africa. My own deep despair over the fate of Ethiopia parallels Paton’s.
Cry for the broken tribe, for the law and the custom that is gone. Aye, and cry aloud for the man who is dead, for the woman and children bereaved. Cry, the beloved country, these things are not yet at an end. The sun pours down on the earth, on the lovely land that man cannot enjoy. He knows only the fear of his heart.”
I cry for the “broken tribe” of Ethiopia. I cry in silence for our brothers and sisters who are held in subhuman bondage in Saudi Arabia. I cry for our sisters who are raped, beaten and thrown out of windows to their deaths and hanged from ceiling and tree tops and scalded with hot water all over the Middle East. I cry for the young man whose head was sliced open by a Saudi thug. I cry for those young men and women who feel compelled to leave their country because they do not feel free; they do not feel they have rights. I cry for those Ethiopians who died crossing the deserts of Yemen and Saudi Arabia seeking to improve their lives. I cry for those precious young ladies who take daily flights on Ethiopian Airlines into the Saudi Arabian Hell.
I cry for those young men and women, father and mothers who were murdered in cold blood in the streets in Ethiopia after the 2005 election. I cry for my sister Reeyot Alemu and for my brothers Eskinder Nega, Andualem Aragie, Woubshet Taye, Bekele Gerba, Abubekar Ahmed and the many thousands of Ethiopian political prisoners. I cry for Ethiopians who suffer under the heavy boots of corrupt thugs and empty suits who pretend to be leaders.
Yes, I cry and cry and “trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries.” I cry for our beloved Ethiopia. But our cries shall not go unheard. South Africa emerged from the tunnel of apartheid tyranny; and Mandela promised, “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” Ethiopians shall soon regain their dignity and honor at home and abroad. They shall no longer be the “skunks of the world”; and deep in my heart I do believe Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God and we shall rejoice and cry no more!
Professor Alemayehu G. Mariam teaches political science at California State University, San Bernardino and is a practicing defense lawyer.
Previous commentaries by the author are available at:
Amharic translations of recent commentaries by the author may be found at: