“Hell On Earth”: Indian Migrants Detained In Saudi Deportation Centre Speak To The Lede
250 people sleep in a cell meant to house 80 in Riyadh detention centre

“Hell On Earth”: Indian Migrants Detained In Saudi Deportation Centre Speak To The Lede

Saudi Arabia may be the land of two Holy Mosques, but its human rights record is dismal

On the evening of October 04, while clearing the social media notifications on my phone, I found a thumb stopper tweet from Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Council (HRC) that reports directly to Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia.

The tweet read - #SaudiArabia is committed to strengthening #WorkersRights.

Coincidentally, that same morning, I had received two video messages on my phone, sent by one of my sources, exposing how documented and undocumented migrant workers are locked up in a hellish deportation centre at Al Kharj area in Riyadh.

One of the videos starts with showing migrant workers lying in front of an overflowing toilet, under the washbasin, on untidy blankets and cardboard, near a food waste heap.

Then the camera moves to the windowless hall, where around 250 migrant workers are sitting and lying on the floor without even having space to stretch their hands or legs.

The room, which is about 250 square metres in area, is meant to house only 80 inmates at maximum capacity.

But in every room, 250 to 300 migrant workers are housed, a 54-year-old Indian migrant engineer who has lived in one of the cells for four months in the centre, told The Lede.

There are 52 such cells in the deportation centre.

A detainee sleeps in the bathroom
A detainee sleeps in the bathroom

“If there is a hell on this Earth, then it is this deportation centre. We were treated like animals. There is not enough food, not enough place to sleep, no clean drinking water, and no medicine if you are sick. All you get are beatings with rods, even if you kneel and beg for medicine when you are sick,” the Indian engineer told The Lede.

“Saudi claims to be the champions of human rights. I have even read that Saudi Arabia was the chair of a United Nations Human Rights Council panel in 2015. Human rights in Saudi Arabia should be seen as an oxymoron,” he alleged.

The overcrowded deportation centre in Riyadh
The overcrowded deportation centre in Riyadh

Saudi Bidding For UNHRC Chair

After four terms in the UNHRC, Saudi Arabia had to leave the Council this January. Reportedly the Kingdom is once again trying to get a seat on the council despite its poor track record on human rights.

This land of two Holy Mosques claims to have adopted reforms on the human rights front. But its actions continue to belie its words. For instance, in April 2019, around 37 people, including three juveniles, were executed in a single day. Political dissidents are arrested, jammed in overcrowded jails, and tortured mentally and physically. Human rights activists and journalists also face the same situation in Saudi Arabia.

“When Saudi’s citizens are tortured by their government, do you think our rights are going to be respected?” the engineer who had worked for 24 years in a multi-national company in Riyadh, asked.

“When we raise our voice against the inhuman treatment in the cell, they will come and beat us with the rod till they get tired. If we resist eating food, then they will take us to a room where there is no air conditioning and make us stand there. In a few hours, we will fall unconscious. We will then be dragged to our cell. Food will be thrown inside. We will be in such a bad condition that we will eat like hungry dogs,” the Indian engineer added.

Indian migrant workers return to India, picture at Chennai airport
Indian migrant workers return to India, picture at Chennai airport

This engineer, who declined to be named out of fear of reprisal, was picked up on June 01, when he had gone to buy groceries in a nearby shop.

He was staying with his wife and younger son. His elder son is an engineer in Bengaluru, back home in India.

“That evening after I reached home, my wife told me that we have to buy groceries and milk. I went for that and I got arrested,” he said.

In any Arab Gulf country, arrest is the norm if a migrant does not possess a resident card. But despite having a valid work permit card, the Indian engineer was arrested.

“I showed them my cards. But they didn’t listen. I could understand that one of the two officers in the vehicle told his colleague to let me go and the other one said that they need a few more to complete the quota,” the engineer said.

Bid To Reduce Migrant Numbers

According to the engineer, he had heard that in a bid to reduce the number of migrant workers in the Kingdom, the police have been given authority to arrest migrants and deport them. Such charges are often ludicrous and foisted.

The engineer was charged with selling vegetables, a profession that migrants are not allowed to engage in.

“I am an engineer in a multi-national company. Will I sell vegetables? I told the police this, but they took me to the deportation centre,” the engineer added.

A social worker in Saudi Arabia confirmed with The Lede that migrants are banned from selling water, phone cards, phones and vegetables in the country.

“Those jobs are reserved for Saudi nationals. If migrants do that, then they can be arrested and deported,” the social worker said.

The Indian engineer tried his best to convince the Saudi authorities about his innocence and secure a release.

His company was ready to fight the case. But they found that he had been fined SAR 50,000 (Rs 10 lakh).

“I didn’t want my company to pay and lose it from the end of the service. So I advised them to drop the fight. I requested them to repatriate my family back to India,” the engineer added.

A social worker helped to send back his wife and son, who was preparing for the NEET examination, in a Vande Bharat Mission flight on June 14.

“I assumed that I will also be sent back. The company had issued three tickets. But the Indian embassy told my wife that she and my son can only travel and I have to wait longer,” the engineer added.

The engineer had tried to get help from both India and the Kerala government. But nothing worked. Finally he was sent back on a flight on September 23 with 250 inmates as part of the Royal Pardon granted by the King on the National Day, which falls on September 23.

“Eight people who were taken into custody with me on the same day are still there. They are from North India. This Saudi Airlines flight carried inmates to South India and landed in Chennai, Tamil Nadu,” the engineer added.

Indian migrant workers return via Vande Bharat flight to Chennai
Indian migrant workers return via Vande Bharat flight to Chennai

According to him, in the deportation centre, there were even Indians who were taken into custody for not wearing a mask in public.

“Should a person be put in that hell for not wearing a mask? This reveals that they simply want to achieve their deportation targets,” the engineer added.

Praying Five Times, Kicking Us Like Dogs

A Keralite salesman who was on the same flight told The Lede that they were tortured in the deportation centre.

“There were around 250 people in the cell. But food would come only for 80. We had to adjust to what is being given. If we fall sick, then we should beg. They will come with some tablets and throw it inside. If we are lucky, we would get one,” the Keralite salesman said.

“In the opening shot of the video, you can see a lean man lying on the floor. He is a cancer patient. He is from North India. He is not being given proper treatment. He may die there,” the salesman said. He added that the embassy had never helped them. “When we seek help, they said – “What is the problem with you people? Aren’t you getting food? Be happy with that”,” the salesman said.

The cancer patient lodged in Riyadh deportation centre
The cancer patient lodged in Riyadh deportation centre

This Keralite had gone to Saudi Arabia as a house driver in Riyadh after registering with the Kerala government’s non-resident of Keralites’ body.

“I went in 2013. The employer seized my passport and let me go only in 2016. After that, he didn’t allow me to go home. This year, in March, I had asked him to send me home. He didn’t give my passport and process my return. He had not paid me since January. So, in March, I fled to Jeddah, presented myself as an undocumented worker, and got arrested,” he said.

“They kept me in Jeddah deportation centre for three months and then transferred me to Al Karaj centre,” the salesman said.

According to the salesman, nobody cares about them.

“We approached the Saudi government and the Indian government. But our repeated pleas fell on deaf ears. Daily, hundreds were brought in. You know, the blanket given to us will not be a washed one. There would be bedbugs. And you should not forget that we were wearing the same dress since the time of arrest,” the salesman added.

“I am a Muslim. I was pained by the torture they inflicted upon us. They pray five times and they kick us like dogs there,” he added.

"When we say that we have high temperature, they will make us stand in an open area under the sun. When we fall unconscious, we will be dragged to the cell," he said, reiterating what the engineer had alleged.

The salesman claimed that even though he was arrested in March, he could return to India only in September.

“Whenever I ask the officials there, they would say, India is not allowing landing permission for the Saudi airlines. Yes, it might be true too. I know that Pakistani inmates had left the centre much before us,” the salesman added.

There were reportedly some delays and confusion in connection with the Indian government allowing foreign carriers to fly to India due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

“India didn’t want us. We were left to suffer there,” he added.

Meanwhile, talking to The Lede from the centre over the phone discreetly, an inmate said that on Sunday evening another 2000 people were brought and pushed into the cells.

“It seems more and more raids are happening. We don’t know whether we will die here. We may even die due to hunger because, even if there are 300 or 400 people in one room, food for 80 only will be distributed,” he said.

Act Immediately

Speaking to The Lede, Sharan Burrow, the International Trade Union Confederation chief said that “no human being should be forced to live in such brutal conditions.”

“We ask the Saudi Government to act and immediately provide healthcare, medicine, food, and a sanitary living environment to avert a humanitarian crisis inside their deportation centres. All of these workers should have access to grievance procedures and legal remedy for their circumstances and consular assistance,” Sharan said.

William Gois, Regional Coordinator for Migrant Forum in Asia, told The Lede that as a country that has served on the UN Human Rights Council, Saudi Arabia has no excuse to not hold itself to the highest human rights standard.

Migrant Forum in Asia is a regional network of migrant rights CSOs.

"The Saudi Government is complicit in putting the health and life of its own people at risk through the prevailing conditions in deportations centres which can very easily become vectors of the virus," said Gois.

He added that the utter disregard for WHO (World Health Organization), IOM (International Organization for Migration), and OHCHR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights) guidelines on measures to be taken that uphold the rights and dignity of people in the time of the pandemic is evident in the current operations at detention and deportation centres and must immediately be corrected.

On September 01, the Sunday Telegraph in the UK broke a story that hundreds of black African migrants are locked up in squalid conditions in Saudi Arabian coronavirus detention centres.

Images published by the newspaper, taken by migrants on their mobile phones showed hundreds of emaciated men lying in rows inside small rooms with barred windows, many of the detainees stripped down to their undergarments.

And on October 02, an investigation by Amnesty International exposed horrifying new details about the treatment of Ethiopian migrants detained in Saudi Arabia.

Amnesty International interviewed detainees who described a catalogue of cruelties at the hands of Saudi Arabian authorities, including being chained together in pairs, forced to use their cell floors as toilets and confined 24 hours a day in unbearably crowded cells.

Since March, Houthi authorities in Yemen have expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers and their families to Saudi Arabia, where they are now being held in life-threatening conditions.

Amnesty International documented the deaths of three adults in detention, based on consistent eyewitness testimonies.

The Lede has written to the Saudi government, Saudi official news agency, Indian embassy in Saudi Arabia and Indian Ministry of External Affairs seeking a response.

This report will be updated when a response is received.

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