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Rights group: Saudis deport 12,000 Somalis

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabian authorities have deported more than 12,000 migrants held under "appalling conditions" back to their native Somalia, where many now face life-threatening situations, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

The New York-based rights group said in a statement that hundreds of women and children are among the migrants sent back to a country where hundreds of thousands live in dire conditions in camps in the capital, Mogadishu, after fleeing famine and violence elsewhere.

A number of the deportees are from parts of south-central Somalia where security has broken down and danger is rampant.

The deportations are part of a Saudi campaign to remove undocumented foreign workers after decades of lax immigration enforcement allowed migrants to take many low-wage jobs that the kingdom's own citizens shunned. Saudi authorities, grappling with high unemployment, now want those jobs for the kingdom's citizens.

The International Organization for Migration says the Somali government expects Saudi Arabia to deport another 30,000 people in the coming weeks. The United Nations refugee agency says its staff has been denied access by Saudi authorities to detained Somalis in the kingdom.

Human Rights Watch said that major donors to UNHCR, including the European Union and the United States, should press Saudi Arabia to end its deportations of Somalis.

"The Saudi government is entitled to promote employment opportunities for its own citizens, but it needs to make sure it's not sending people back to a life-threatening situation," Gerry Simpson, senior refugee researcher, said. "Saudi Arabia has no excuse for not offering protection to some of the world's most vulnerable people."

Human Rights Watch said it spoke to Somalis who were recently deported who say they were held for weeks in "appalling conditions."

A woman in her ninth month of pregnancy told Human Rights Watch she was detained in Saudi Arabia and separated from her husband. She said a Saudi policewoman beat her on the back with a baton while she stood in line at the airport. She went into labor and gave birth on the cabin floor of the plane as it flew to Mogadishu, the rights organization said.

The rights group said others described severe overcrowding, lack of access to fresh air and daylight, sweltering heat, and limited medical assistance in Saudi detention centers. With one exception, none of the detention centers had bedding and detainees slept on the floor, Human Rights Watch said. Dozens of children were also left unattended without caregivers or parents in difficult conditions where people fought over food.

Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Saudi government says it has deported more than a quarter-million migrants since the government began enforcing its crackdown in November. Around 170,000 of those are Ethiopians, most of whom never acquired visas, often taking perilous boat journeys across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen from where they cross illegally into the kingdom with the help of smugglers.

An additional one million migrant workers were forced to leave the kingdom, or face arrest and deportation, during an amnesty period ahead of the government crackdown. The majority of foreign workers in the kingdom are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines, as well as Egypt and Yemen.

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