Ethiopians want justice

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Ethiopians want justice

by Chris Matthews


Shouts of ‘shame on you’ were heard in London on 18 November as more than 300 Ethiopians protested outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy. They were protesting against the treatment of migrant workers in the country.

Hundreds of people from London’s Ethiopian community filled the west London street waving flags, singing together and holding signs with slogans demanding action – ‘The blood of Ethiopians cries out for justice’, ‘Stop the torture’ and ‘Being poor is not a crime’.

The protest was in response to the Saudi authorities’ restrictions on migrant workers. It came after several migrants, including at least two Ethiopians, were killed during violent confrontations with the police and army in Saudi Arabia last week.

On Sunday 3 November a seven-month campaign ended. The campaign had demanded that all migrant workers without legal status in the country should be sent back to their home countries. This resulted in large demonstrations and riots across the country and in the capital Riyadh.

An estimated nine million migrant workers live in Saudi Arabia. Many of them are from Ethiopia and neighbouring East African nations. The Government says that the restrictions will mean that fewer Saudi people will be unemployed.

However, there are a lot of reports of abuse of migrant workers in the country, including some cases of murder, rape and torture against foreigners.

Zelealam Tesdema, who was one of the organizers of the London protest, said that the Saudi Arabian government must take action. He also said that the people responsible for attacking foreign people should be caught and punished.

‘This protest is part of a global movement to stop the violence, the rape and the murder of migrant workers. The government needs to stop the violence and bring the security forces and authorities to justice,’ Zelealam Tesdema said.

As more people arrived at the protest and voices became louder and angrier, a police line formed in front of the protesters, stopping them reaching the gates of the Saudi Arabian embassy.

Zelealam Tesdema said it was essential that people had the opportunity to ‘express their concerns’. A petition which demanded that the Saudi government ‘stop the brutal and inhumane treatment’ of Ethiopians was delivered to the embassy.

More than 23,000 Ethiopians who were living illegally in Saudi Arabia have now surrendered to officials there, and the Ethiopian government has already started sending them back to Ethiopia.

The UN Refugee Agency said that more than 51,000 Ethiopians have returned to Ethiopia this year alone.

Another of the protest’s organizers, Bekele Woyecha, who has lived in London for six years, is worried that many of the people who return to Ethiopia will now be left with nothing.

‘A lot of people who left Ethiopia for Saudi Arabia came here because of economic or political problems and so it will be difficult for them to return. These people have nothing now – the authorities in Saudi Arabia have taken everything that they have.’

In Saudi Arabia labour laws are almost always abandoned and workers’ rights are usually ignored. This has been shown by images of abuse against migrants which have been seen by many people online in the last few days. Adam Coogle, a Middle-East Researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes that there is a culture of abusing migrants and that this kind of abuse will probably continue.

‘Many migrant workers do not know about their official rights. Saudi Arabia will still be dependent on migrant workers for many years in the future because the labour laws lead to abuse.’

The large number of undocumented workers in the country has created a huge informal economy and Coogle says that many employers have ‘complete power’ over migrant workers. They often keep their travel documents and prevent workers from changing to a different job once they begin working for an employer.

Although abusive treatment of migrants is also a problem in other parts of the world, the tragic events of the last few weeks have shown how serious the situation in Saudi Arabia is. The protest on the streets of London has helped make people more aware of the human rights abuses and the continuing nightmare which migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are experiencing.

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