Cries of ‘shame on you’ rang around Curzon Street in London on 18 November as more than 300 Ethiopians gathered outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy to protest against the treatment of migrant workers in the country.
Waving flags, singing in unison and holding placards adorned with slogans demanding action – ‘The blood of Ethiopians cries out for justice’, ‘Stop the torture’ and ‘Being poor is not a crime’ – hundreds of London’s Ethiopian diaspora crowded the usually busy west London street.
The protest, in response to Saudi authorities clampdown on migrant workers, came after several migrants, including at least two Ethiopian nationals, were killed during violent clashes with security forces in the oil-rich Gulf State last week.
Sunday 3 November saw an end to a seven-month amnesty demanding that all migrant workers without legal status in the country be deported, resulting in the mass demonstrations and riots seen across the country and in the capital Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia is home to an estimated nine million migrants workers, many from Ethiopia and neighbouring East African nations, and authorities argue that the clampdown will reduce growing unemployment levels among Saudi nationals.
However, there are widespread accusations of abuse towards migrant workers in the Kingdom, with numerous reports of murder, rape and torture against members of the foreign population.
Zelealam Tesdema, one of the organizers of the London protest, urged the Saudi Arabian government to take action and called for those responsible for such acts to be brought to justice.
‘This protest is part of a global movement to stop the brutality, 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 numbers swelled and voices became louder and more fervent, a police cordon formed in front of the protesters, barring any advances to the gates of the Saudi Arabian embassy.
Zelealam Tesdema said it was vital people had the opportunity to ‘voice their concerns’. A petition calling on the ‘Saudi government to 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 repatriating those ordered to leave the country.
The UN Refugee Agency said that in excess of 51,000 Ethiopians have made the journey across the Gulf of Aden this year alone.
Another of the protest’s organizers, Bekele Woyecha, who has lived in London for six years, fears that many of those on return flights to the capital Addis Ababa will now be left with nothing.
‘A lot of people who left Ethiopia in the first place were doing so because of economic or political problems and so for them returning it will be difficult. These people have nothing now – the authorities in Saudi Arabia have taken everything that they have.’
In a country where labour laws are routinely abandoned and workers’ rights systematically ignored – highlighted by images of maltreatment against migrants circulating online in recent days – an environment of abuse has festered and Adam Coogle, Middle-East Researcher for Human Rights Watch, believes such malpractice is likely to continue.
‘Many migrant workers are unaware of the official rights available to them. Saudi Arabia will still be dependent on migrant workers for many years to come – the labour laws provide conditions in which abuses can take place.’
The large number of undocumented workers in the country has created a vast under-the-table economy and Coogle says that many employers have ‘complete power’ over migrant workers, often confiscating travel documents and preventing workers from changing jobs once they begin working for an employer.
And although such treatment of migrants is a problem not unique to the Arabian Peninsula, the tragic events of recent weeks have a shone an alarming light on the darkness that pervades in the country. The protest on the streets of London has helped bring awareness to the human rights violations and ongoing plight of migrant workers within the Saudi state a little more into focus.