REVEALED: Hundreds of Rohingya imprisoned ‘indefinitely’ in Saudi Arabia
Hundreds of Rohingya men, women, and children have been held indefinitely for several years without charge inside a detention centre in Saudi Arabia.
Many members of the persecuted group came to Saudi Arabia after 2011 on fake passports to flee persecution in Myanmar and earn a living - but they were swept up in a series of crackdowns against undocumented workers, Middle East Eye can reveal.
During a four-month-long investigation, MEE has spoken to former and current detainees, alongside Rohingya living in Saudi Arabia, Bangladeshi refugee camps and activists, who confirmed that hundreds are being detained in the Gulf kingdom.
Current detainees and those who fled to Bangladesh told MEE that many had spent between one to six years stuck inside the Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, unable to leave, and incarcerated for an indefinite period.
“Saudi Arabia’s historic stance to stand by persecuted Muslim Rohingya refugees is in tatters."
- Hiba Zayadin, Human Rights Watch
Among the detainees are children, alongside men and women of all ages.
Abu Ubayd, whose name was changed to protect his identity, is currently locked up in the centre. Using a smuggled phone, he explained the situation inside the detention centre.
“Everyone who is here just wants to leave. We feel frustrated and claustrophobic just being here,” Ubayd told MEE. “Lot of people are locked up here because they came on fake passports, but what do you expect us to do.
“The Myanmar government refuses to give us any form of documentation let alone a passport.
“It feels so claustrophobic just being here for so long, unable to leave, and not able to live the basic freedom of feeling the wind running through our hair.”
‘So many young boys have gone crazy’
The Rohingya are a Muslim minority that has faced systematic persecution by the Myanmar military for several decades.
Often described as the “most persecuted minority in the world”, the group was forced to flee Myanmar in 2016 en masse following an upsurge in violence against the minority.
More than 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled their homes in 2016 and are now living inside squalid refugee camps in neighbouring Bangladesh.
The Rohingya detainees came to Saudi Arabia using fake passports obtained from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, and Nepal in a bid to flee persecution in Myanmar and to work.
Upon arrival to the Gulf kingdom, individuals with foreign passports are expected to give their fingerprints to Saudi immigration authorities. This system was introduced in 2010 to prevent foreigners overstaying and has meant Rohingya refugees are now registered with their fake passports.
Before this, when a Rohingya was detained in Shumaisi, local authorities would use locally recognised Rohingya groups to go into the detention centre to verify whether individuals were Rohingya.
But now, Rohingya with fake passports are misidentified as being citizens of a country they do not come from - meaning those who declare themselves as Rohingya following their detention in Shumaisi are arrested and forced to live inside the Shumaisi detention centre under the assumption that they are from the country where they obtained a fake passport.
The Shumaisi Detention Centre is a complex of buildings next to the Jeddah-Makkah expressway, covering more than 2.5 million square metres. Official Saudi government figures state that Shumaisi holds approximately 32,000 undocumented workers from various parts of the world.
Many are deported within days of being detained, but Saudis have chosen to hold the Rohingya indefinitely instead of sending them to Myanmar where they will be persecuted.
There is no official reason given by the Saudi government as to why it is detaining so many Rohingya in Shumaisi, but detainees and activists believe it is because the Saudis have struggled to confirm whether they are Rohingya.
The Rohingya detainees are kept in confined quarters with little sunlight and are not permitted to go to other parts of the detention centre.
Images and videos sent to MEE from former Shumaisi inmates now living in Bangladesh as refugees and current detainees showed Rohingya living in cramped conditions, with some developing mental health conditions as a result of their prolonged detention.
Some Rohingya have also died inside Shumaisi due to their prolonged detention, according to detainees currently in the detention centre. MEE could not independently verify this claim.
The lengthy incarceration has also meant some inmates have developed blood pressure, diabetes, and depression, according to activists and detainees.
“We believe that there are hundreds inside the Shumaisi detention centre,” Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist told MEE.
“Detainees and contacts of mine have said that there are several rooms inside Shumaisi which house only Rohingya.”
Win and detainees have said that each room holds 64 detainees, where Rohingya sleep on bunk beds and blankets provided by the Saudi authorities.
Detainees told MEE they spent their days praying, making up games or browsing social media with smuggled phones. Some write and upload songs to YouTube, begging King Salman for their freedom.
Lwin, who travels the world advocating for Rohingya rights, said that Saudi Arabia had ignored his repeated requests for meetings with their foreign ministry to discuss the plight of the persecuted minority.
The Saudi embassy in London and America did not respond to requests for comment at the time of writing. Bangladesh’s Foreign Ministry said it would comment after the publication of this story.
Current detainees told MEE that many inmates had been driven to contemplating suicide in order to escape Shumaisi.
“There are so many young boys who have gone crazy,” Haseeb, another detainee, told MEE.
“They speak to themselves. Bang their head on the walls. This is our life. Living in tension for 24 hours where we do nothing but worry about our families.”
As their relatives struggle inside the centre, families of detained Rohingya have staged protests in Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, chanting for their freedom in the hope that someone will take notice.
Saudi Arabia has no official asylum or refugee policy and is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which recognises refugees' rights to work, be given travel documents and have freedom of movement.
Last year, Waleed al-Khereiji, Saudi's ambassador to Turkey, said that Saudi Arabia had stood by the Rohingya people for the last 70 years.
But the mass detention of Rohingya stands in stark contrast to the Gulf kingdom’s previous policies towards the persecuted minority.
In 1973, during the rule of King Faisal, and following an upsurge in communal violence inside Myanmar, the Gulf kingdom granted Rohingya asylum. This continues to be official policy for Rohingya born in the kingdom to generations previously offered residency permits.
The majority of Rohingya who had been given asylum and eventual residency at that time ended up settling in Jeddah and Mecca. Residency has since been passed down several generations, making Saudi Arabia the country with the second highest population of Rohingya outside of Myanmar, after Bangladesh.
Rights groups have told MEE that Saudi Arabia is in breach of “international human rights standards” by detaining Rohingya refugees for an indefinite period of time.
“Saudi Arabia’s historic stance to stand by persecuted Muslim Rohingya refugees is in tatters...and in breach of international human rights standards,” Hiba Zayadin, a researcher at Human Rights Watch focusing on the Gulf, told Middle East Eye.
“Saudi Arabia cannot indefinitely detain Rohingya Muslims who may very well be at risk of persecution upon return to their home countries and still claim to stand by them on the world stage."
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.