By Laura Moth
19 February 2014
“There is the Philippines room, the Ethiopia room, the Sudan room, the Somalia room. You don't want to go to the Somalia room.”
These words of welcome were from the sole English-speaking guard at the Riyadh detention centre where I was held before being deported in 2012.
If the place had a name it would have been the King Khalid International Airport Ladies Detention Centre. It was introduced to me, mockingly, as “the five-star hotel” by the airport security official who escorted me there. As far as I could tell, it didn't have an exact name. King Abdullah beamed down on us from a portrait on the wall, but apart from that national reminder, it soon became clear that this was an exceptional territory, an unaccountable place.
Before being escorted down to detention I sat for two hours in a room filled by the cigarette smoke of a tiny man in constant motion between a desk and a photocopy machine. He would leap up, photocopy something, crumple the paper into a ball that found its place among antecedent balls on the floor, photocopy the thing again, dash back to his desk, scribble, staple, and, perhaps half the time, produce another ball crumpled for the floor. The paperwork was urgent and profuse. My request for water was not urgent.
If I can take one more step back -- and here I watch myself already trying to write my way out of that detention centre -- let me tell you about standing in line at immigration, before it was discovered that my employer had faked my new visa. I was in the foreigners' line. There were some Australians and an Italian in front of me, some pale, nervous American men behind me. To our left was another line, entirely occupied by about 70 Sudanese women in bright clothing sitting wearily on the floor. I inched guiltily past them, understanding without being told that they constituted a separate type of foreigner.
Back in the detention centre, under King Abdullah's benevolent smile, the guards, three stout young women, had to decide what to do with me. “Canada?” they pondered out loud. Finally an ad hoc decision was made based on systematic and entirely shameless discrimination: “The Philippines.” I would go to the Philippines room because it was the nicest room and I am white and from Canada and would be okay with the Filipinas.
The detention centres, at least the separate-and-unequal Philippines room, an umbrella room for Southeast Asians, was carpeted and ringed with red sofas and smelled of the sweat of sleeping women. I would spend 28 hours there, a fact I was made aware of 28 hours later. For the first three hours I touched nothing, in a physical denial, and made frantic phone calls to the Canadian Embassy. The consul general expressed concern over my being held indefinitely -- intoning in perfect Canadian English, “They really shouldn't do that.” But this was Saudi, and “should” was relative, and he made it clear that there would be no fight, that there was simply no point.
The amount of paperwork, as it often seems, had an inverse relationship to accountability.
The washroom in this exceptional zone was a large room with decorative toilet stones submerged under four or five inches of water. The room was a sustained flood, with smaller seas of urine and excrement and little bright red boats of sanitary pads. Within a few hours I had, like others, dehydrated myself and accepted the pains that come with being without a toilet.
It is not very fun to remember this. When friends have suggested I write about it, I've always decided that revisiting it would have little value. Really, it's hardly a prison story: I wasn't beaten or thrown behind bars; there was no outcry followed by a triumphant release. As it turned out, I was caught in a 28-hour bureaucratic limbo that is not uncommon for deportees. Moreover, apart from one run-in with an angry guard with a menacingly large gun trained on my chest, I was treated with extraordinary privilege throughout the ordeal, even being summoned for tea with the airport immigration chief, who listened to my plea for release thoughtfully before leaning back in his chair and asking, “My English, how is the pronunciation?”
But today my experience of privilege, my awareness of those strata, became a reason for, not against, telling the story.
· "Deportees are first held in detention centres of varying degrees of overcrowding and squalor, and are, crucially, denied the chance to claim refugee status with the UN."
On Tuesday Human Rights Watch released a report documenting the deportation of over 12,000 Somalis from Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the year. The move is part of a recent campaign of labour force “Saudisation” that has proceeded in fits and setbacks, grating against Saudis' own lack of willingness or skills to do certain jobs. In April 2013, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Fakeih said that over 900,000 foreign workers had been deported in the previous 18 months; a Reuters report cited 200,000 in the first few months of 2013. But the deportation of Somalis in particular is acutely troubling because of the violent conditions they face in their estranged home. Deportees, HRW reports, are first held in detention centres of varying degrees of overcrowding and squalor, and are, crucially, denied the chance to claim refugee status with the UN.
Reading this, those words -- You don't want to go to the Somalia room -- started burning in my mind. I never saw the Somalia room. I tried furtively to witness it but a half-closed door and my shame at being a privileged spectator kept me from walking in. Every hour or two, a group of women from Sudan or Ethiopia or Somalia would stumble into the centre, some stoic, some in tears -- likely part of the first bewildered wave of deportees. Then they would disappear into their rooms and after that we would only hear the occasional shout or scream. The English-speaking guard bowed her head as she told me, “They do terrible things to each other.” I couldn't tell where she was asking me to place my sympathy.
Today HRW gave us a window into the Somalia room, or rooms. They have described overcrowding, inadequate food, children being held with unrelated adults, the separation of families, beatings and lengthy detention periods.
This process alone would be cruel enough, but it's being implemented by a country that has largely built its infrastructure and economy on the sweat, blood, abuse and sometimes deaths of these undocumented workers. The conditions of these workers are often hidden behind closed doors and the high walls that surround Saudi homes. But often they are visible: I remember passing a construction site of two high-rises on my way to work in Riyadh each morning. At the base of the towers were scattered groups of small black crates, which I assumed were for storage. Then one evening one the way home I noticed a small fire outside one of the crates with a group of African men crowded around it, and realized, with astonishment, that these boxes were housing workers. The often appalling conditions of employment for the lower strata of labourers in the Kingdom have been well documented in reports such as those found here, here and here.
Somalis have recently joined a long-standing, hard-working underclass in Saudi in a system resembling indentured slavery. Now thousands of them are being rewarded by expulsion to a likely scenario of war, violence, epidemic rape, starvation and widespread poverty, a situation many will walk into without preparation or resources.
The 2014 deportations of Somalis from Saudi Arabia are a disgrace. Within a system of profound discrimination, the most vulnerable target has been selected for sacrifice on the altar of Saudisation. The Kingdom remains one of the most ruthless and unaccountable actors on the global stage, with trading partners such as the US continuing to churn out rarefied, un-actionable statements on “human rights concerns" that lead nowhere.
There will be no fight. There is simply no point.