At least three detainees have died in Saudi facilities housing thousands of Ethiopian migrants who are enduring "unimaginable cruelty" during the coronavirus pandemic, Amnesty International said in a report yesterday.
Amnesty called on Saudi Arabia to release the migrants and work with Ethiopian authorities to facilitate their repatriation.
"Thousands of Ethiopian migrants, who left their homes in search of a better life, have instead faced unimaginable cruelty at every turn," Amnesty researcher Marie Forestier said in a statement.
"We are urging the Saudi authorities to immediately release all arbitrarily detained migrants, and significantly improve detention conditions before more lives are lost," Forestier said.
Ethiopians have long looked to Saudi Arabia as an escape from poor economic prospects and state repression, hoping to find work despite not having legal status.
Up to half a million Ethiopians were in Saudi Arabia when officials there launched a crackdown on illegal migrants in 2017, according to the UN's International Organization for Migration (IOM).
From that point on around 10,000 Ethiopians on average were deported monthly until earlier this year, when Ethiopia requested a moratorium because of the pandemic.
In August the British newspaper The Telegraph published interviews with migrants as well as photos and video footage showing unsanitary detention centres where floors were covered with sewage from clogged toilets, bringing fresh attention to the migrants' plight.
The Amnesty report published yesterday describes "filthy cells" that double as toilets where migrants are held around the clock, sometimes "chained together in pairs".
It said two migrants "reported personally seeing the dead bodies of three people -- an Ethiopian man, a Yemeni man and a Somali man -- in Al-Dayer centre" in southern Jizan province.
"However, all those interviewed said they knew of people who had died in detention, and four people said they had seen bodies themselves," the report said.
Tsion Teklu, a state minister at Ethiopia's foreign ministry, told AFP in September that the total number of Ethiopian migrants in Saudi detention facilities was 16,000 earlier this year but that it had since gone down.
Ethiopia planned to repatriate 2,000 detained migrants by mid-October, she said.
Addis Ababa appears careful not to antagonise Riyadh, a key investor and source of foreign remittances in Ethiopia.
Last month three migrants told AFP that visiting Ethiopian diplomats had warned migrants to stop speaking out about detention conditions.