'We would Rather Die Now than be Kept in Here Forever' – Life Inside a Saudi Detention Centre for Rohingya Refugees
CJ Werleman documents his conversations with Faisal Thar Thakin, a Rohingya Muslim who has been held in the kingdom’s notorious Shumaisi detention centre for the past six years.
For several months, I have been holding regular conversations with Faisal Thar Thakin, a 20-year-old Rohingya Muslim asylum seeker who has been detained and separated from his parents in Saudi Arabia’s notorious Shumaisi detention centre since 2013.
“We would rather die now than be kept in here forever or sent to Myanmar or Bangladesh,” Thakin told me in early April when explaining why he and upwards of 1,000 Rohingya detainees had decided to launch a hunger strike in protest against their indefinite detention and threats by Saudi Arabia to deport them.
The Shumaisi detention centre is a sprawling complex that spans 2.5 million square meters, along the highway linking the Saudi capital Jeddah to the holy city of Mecca, and is designed to hold more than 30,000 undocumented immigrants as they await deportation from the kingdom.
Life in this Saudi detention centre has gone from bad to worse to horrific for the nearly 1,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees for which Shumaisi has become their temporary home as they await their perilous fate.
Deporting Rohingya genocide survivors to either Bangladesh or Myanmar is totally unconscionable.
“We are doing this hunger strike, so the government will release us and give us IQAMA status [a temporary residence permit issued to foreign citizens who arrive with a pre-approved employment visa], which will allow us to work in Saudi Arabia to provide for ourselves and our families,” Thakhin said.
Saudi authorities eventually broke the hunger strike two weeks later, but only after deploying an array of tactics, including torture, to force the striking refugees to accept their meals.
Thakhin described to me how Saudi guards responded to the hunger strike by removing their bedding mattresses, pillows, and blankets, while also forcing them to spend hours at a time outside in the hot sun without shade.
In a video he sent to me, a dozen or so Rohingya men can be seen huddled together, trying to sleep and get comfortable on a barren concrete floor in a windowless room without any air-conditioning, which other detainees have described as the “hot rooms”.
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These unimaginable sufferings occur in total silence. Their protests, which are not limited to prolonged and agonising self-destruction or suicide, are seen and heard only by the same Saudi guards who are partly responsible for their misery.
Their masochistic protests have come to naught, however, with Saudi Arabia not only snuffing out their protests, but also defying calls from the United Nations to grant them asylum status, with detainees within the Shumaisi detention centre alleging that a dozen or so Rohingya have been handcuffed and transferred to Jeddah’s international airport for immediate deportation in May.
While the United States’ mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers has attracted much of the world’s media attention, Saudi Arabia’s abuse of Rohingya refugees is every bit as merciless as President Trump’s strategy to separate migrant children from their parents.
In fact, Saudi police took Thakhin away from his parents when he was just 14 years old, and he hasn’t been allowed to see them even once in the nearly six years since.
Thakhin was arrested in 2013 for carrying a fake passport after the Saudi Government implemented a fingerprint-based immigration system to crackdown on undocumented migrants as part of its ongoing ‘Nation Without Violators’ campaign.
He had only been in the country for one year at that point. He had joined his parents who fled there from Myanmar in 2004, not long after the military and extremist Buddhist militias destroyed mosques and religious schools across the country. He was left behind at the time in the guardianship of his much older sister, until they could raise the money to fetch him from Myanmar, which they did in 2012.
His parents were granted IQAMA status and entry into Saudi Arabia after selling their belongings in Myanmar and acquiring fake passports from human traffickers, and before the introduction of the fingerprint-based immigration system in 2011.
Evidence on the ground suggests that Myanmar has renewed its campaign to ‘clean out’ the 500,000 Rohingya who remain in the country.
“The Rohingya who arrived after 2011 are very unfortunate,” Roy Nay San Lwin a Rohingya blogger and coordinator for the Free Rohingya Coalition, told me earlier this year.
“They couldn’t manage to have residency permit like their fellow Rohingya who arrived earlier. They had to stay illegally. Many of them [were] detained at various immigration checkpoints or raids. As their fingerprints were registered according to the passports they have presented at entry points, they have been identified as [of a] different nationality than their original country, Burma or Myanmar.”
This is not the first time Saudi Arabia’s mistreatment and human rights violations against Rohingya refugees has been in the spotlight, with Middle East Eye releasing leaked footage from within the Shumaisi detention centre showing evidence of abuse.
“We have no choice but to kill ourselves,” one Rohingya man can be heard saying in the video.
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When I spoke with John Quinley, a human rights specialist at Fortify Rights, he explained how Saudi Arabia is violating international law by treating refugees like criminals, adding: “Genocide survivors should be protected, not jailed in indefinite detention centres”, while calling on the Government to “urgently end its detention of Rohingya refugees” and “provide legal status, freedom of movement and access to healthcare and education”.
Saudi Arabia, however, has shown stubborn resistance to pressure from the international community, including the United Nations. Through its special rapporteur, it expressed condemnation of the kingdom’s mistreatment of Rohingya refugees in January – the same month it deported more than a dozen to Bangladesh.
Deporting Rohingya genocide survivors to either Bangladesh or Myanmar is totally unconscionable given these refugees are not the responsibility of the former, and while genocide remains ongoing in the latter.
In fact, evidence on the ground suggests that Myanmar has renewed its campaign to ‘clean out’ the 500,000 Rohingya who remain in the country, using its offensive against the separatist Arakan Army as a pretext to attack Rohingya villages.
Life in this Saudi detention centre has gone from bad to worse to horrific for the nearly 1,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees.
“Rohingya detainees can’t be deported to Myanmar and elsewhere,” says Lwin. “That’s why they should be released in Saudi Arabia and granted IQAMA status, so they can support their families back in Myanmar and Bangladesh.”
This, too, is all Thakhin is asking of the Saudi Government. He wants nothing more than to be with his parents, who now live in a refugee camp in Mecca, and to then find a job, girlfriend, and establish his own life.
“I miss my mother so badly,” Thakhin told me, before breaking into tears.
Myanmar has already robbed him of his childhood; Saudi Arabia his teenage years. Both should not be allowed to deny him a future.