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HRW: Saudi border guards killing hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants

August 21, 2023 at 11:21 am

African immigrants seeking asylum in the Gulf States walk on foot along a highway leading to Saadah province to cross into Saudi Arabia, ahead of the World Refugee Day on June 17, 2023 in Yemen. [Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images]

Human Rights Watch today accused Saudi border guards of firing “explosive weapons” at Ethiopian migrants trying to cross from Yemen to the wealthy Gulf kingdom, killing hundreds since last year.

These allegations, which Riyadh did not immediately comment on, indicate a significant escalation in violations against the perilous “Eastern Route” from countries in the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia, where hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians live and work.

“Saudi border guards have killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023,” wrote Nadia Hardman, researcher in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division at HRW, in a report issued in English.

“In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in deflecting attention from its abysmal human rights record at home and abroad, spending billions of dollars to host major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events,” she added.

The New York-based organisation has “previously documented killings of migrants at the border with Yemen and Saudi Arabia since 2014” however, “the killings documented in this report appear to be a deliberate escalation in both the number and manner of targeted killings”, with the report showing “how the pattern of abuses has changed from an apparent practice of occasional shootings and mass detentions to widespread and systematic killings” that “would be crimes against humanity if they are both widespread and systematic and part of a state policy of deliberate murder of a civilian population.”

Last year, UN experts cited “disturbing allegations” of “artillery shelling and small arms fire allegedly by Saudi security forces causing the deaths of up to 430 and injuring 650 migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers” in the first four months of 2022.

HRW said it had not received a response to the letters it sent to the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defence, and the Human Rights Commission, as well as the Houthis who control northern Yemen.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia formed a military coalition to oust the Houthis, who had seized control of the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, from the internationally recognised government the previous year.

The Yemen war has caused what the UN describes as one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world.

However, many of the violations mentioned by HRW may have occurred during the truce, which began in April 2022 and has mostly lasted, despite its expiration in October.

The Human Rights Watch report was based on interviews with 38 Ethiopian migrants who tried to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen, as well as satellite imagery, photos and videos posted on social media or “collected from other sources.”

Twenty-eight people interviewed by the organisation described “incidents of explosive weapons,” including mortar attacks.

Some survivors described attacks at close range, with accounts of Saudi border guards asking Ethiopians “which limb of their body they would prefer to have shot, and then shooting that limb” the report said.

“All described scenes of horror: women, men, and children strewn across the mountainous landscape severely injured, dismembered, or already dead,” said the report.

A 20-year-old woman from Ethiopia’s Oromia region reported that Saudi border guards shot at a group of migrants they had just released from custody.

“They fired on us like rain. When I remember, I cry,” she said, adding, “I saw a guy calling for help, he lost both his legs. He was screaming; he was saying, “Are you leaving me here? Please don’t leave me.” We couldn’t help him because we were running for our lives.”

Human Rights Watch called on Riyadh to “immediately and urgently revoke any policy, whether explicit or de facto, targeting migrants with explosive weapons and close-range attacks on civilian migrants on the border with Yemen.”