The UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on Monday that Saudi Arabia has so far deported 2,870 Ethiopian migrants to Addis Ababa since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
An aid worker familiar with the deportations, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that “about 3,000” Ethiopian migrants have arrived from Saudi Arabia in the past 10 days.
“The expulsion and deportation of Ethiopian irregular migrants while their country’s COVID-19 response is under-prepared puts them in harm’s way,” said Catherine Sozi, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Ethiopia.
“Large-scale migratory movements, which are not planned, make the transmission of the virus much more likely to continue. We are therefore calling for the temporary suspension of large-scale deportations,” Sozi added.
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The deportations come as the health condition of the returnees is a concern for the Ethiopian government as it is unclear how thoroughly Saudi authorities are screening them for coronavirus before their departure from the kingdom.
Sozi further said the Ethiopian government has requested that such deportations be stopped until it could set up 30 quarantine centers in the capital, Addis Ababa.
However, she said Riyadh has continued the deportations despite the fact that “only seven quarantine centers can host returnees” and Ethiopia is straining to accommodate the migrants.
The Saudi media ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A humanitarian aid organization, which asked to remain anonymous, said it fears that the frequency of the flights and the large number of deportees involved could overwhelm Ethiopia’s quarantine system.
“The quarantine measures currently in place need to be improved, and the current medical staff needs to be increased and better prepared and equipped to assist … all newly arrived migrants,” the aid group said.
“These migrants are very vulnerable. They have undertaken an extremely dangerous journey and many arrive in Ethiopia with high medical and mental health needs.”
The new coronavirus, which causes a respiratory disease known as COVID-19, is believed to have emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
The virus has so far infected 1,903,073 people worldwide, and over 118,362 have died, according to a running count by worldometers.info.
Saudi Arabia, which has around 30 million people, has so far reported 4,934 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 65 deaths.
Ethiopia, with a population of 105 million, has so far reported only 74 coronavirus cases and three deaths.