Last week a short video clip made its way onto my desk, taken on a mobile phone in Saudi Arabia. It was only a few seconds long, but it showed a large crowd of young men held in a single room, the floor covered in blankets. The men were mainly Indians and I later learned, migrant workers whose dream of supporting their family with Saudi riyals has gone bust. They are being held, right now, not in a Saudi prison – but in an immigration detention centre in Riyadh.
Over the weekend, word got out amongst the detainees, locked in a room forty foot wide and forty foot long. More pictures and videos made their way to me. The doors are locked, there are no windows, and the men are never allowed to leave the room. The hum of air conditioning and CCTV cameras is constant.
I learned of a police headcount confirming the total number confined as 396. Despite many of the men having been held for a year, many without charge or explanation – they have not been given access to any lawyers. Most have not changed their clothes since they arrived, and access to showers or basins is limited. According to a series of ten second video clips filmed secretly by the detainees themselves – the cell is filthy, as is the drinking water – and many have contracted illnesses. One detainee, who didn’t want to be named, said he had been appealing to guards for the last ten days straight for medical treatment, but none had arrived. It is the same for many others – with newly acquired respiratory illnesses the most common ailment. Occasionally, some are taken away and put on flights back to India – but mostly, they just wait.
The experiences of the men stuck in this nightmarish limbo are sobering. One, Mr. Inderjit Singh, travelled from Punjab, northern India, to work as a chauffeur driver for a well-off Saudi Army officer. On arrival, his passport was confiscated. Instead of driving the man’s wife and family, as he had expected – Mr. Singh has been driving enormous trucks, trucks which he claims are not safe and for which he has no license to drive.
His “owner”, as Singh labels him in broken English, has seriously physically assaulted him twice, once with a fire hose. He has threatened him with murder. It has been six months since his last pay cheque. Last week, when the second assault occurred, instead of his employer facing a police arrest, it was Mr. Singh. He now languishes in Riyadh detention centre, uncertain of his fate. Is he there on a criminal charge or simply waiting for a slot on a deportation plane to open up? Who knows, the Saudi immigration officials prowling outside his cell are tight-lipped.
Immigration detention centres in Saudi Arabia are known to be grim. In March 2013, an inmate died and nine others were injured during a riot at a detention centre in Jeddah. In December 2013, Human Rights Watch reported on Ethiopian detainees at a detention centre being fed just one bowl of rice per day. For the past year, the government has been rounding up and deporting tens of thousands of South Asian and East African migrants, in a move designed to boost job prospects for nationals. Many of those detained and deported are illegal over-stayers, or entered the country without papers, but the experiences of the men I spoke to in Riyadh suggest many are now being targeted through sheer bad luck.
In the past year, the Saudi media has created a horrific anti-immigrant atmosphere which has seen thousands of young Ethiopians hand themselves into the authorities for deportation, rather than facing street beatings from roaming far-right gangs and Saudi police officers, as Human Rights Watch has reported. Where there have been street protests organised against the deportations, Saudi newspaper editors have been quick to blame migrants rather than the bullish police officers. Incidents of violence from police officers against protesting migrants have not been investigated.
It is not just the Saudi government at fault. The Indian embassy is lackadaisical in its efforts to rescue the men. A much vaunted new online reporting system for migrant worker grievances “MADAD,” launched earlier this year, remains a cosmetic attempt to feign interest in protecting Indian citizens abroad.
MADAD is up and running, in theory, and migrant workers with grievances or who are in danger are able to notify the Indian authorities via an Embassy website. Yet nothing happens when they do. In Singh’s case, the Indian embassy failed to act on his MADAD request, even as he warned of his employer’s violent disposition and that he felt his life could be in danger. He was unable to leave as the employer had taken his passport, and no Indian official was prepared to help him. Others in the detention centre claim that on the rare occasions embassy officials have visited – they do not deal with individual cases. Instead, they address the four hundred men as a group, shouting through the doorway.
The Indian government also perpetuates an industry of unscrupulous recruitment agents who act with relative impunity – sending people to the Gulf with the promise of good pay, accommodation and holidays. These Indian agents even produce a contract to rubberstamp their promise, but this agreement is too often ripped up as their charges arrive in the Middle East. Instead, their employer pays them little or nothing, they cannot change jobs owing to strict Saudi visa laws, and they are kept in a state of semi-permanent servitude. If their employer is physically, verbally or sexually abusive, as many are, then tough. Neither the Saudi or Indian governments will do anything to help.
The UK-based human rights charity Nyaya UK is currently providing assistance to the men inside Riyadh detention centre. Please visit their website.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.