Ethiopian migrants in Yemen (Reuters) Ethiopian migrants in Yemen (Reuters) 

Saudi border guards accused of mass killings of Ethiopian migrants

A Human Rights Watch report analyses the mass killings perpetrated by Saudi border guards of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing the armed conflict in the northern part of the African country.

By Edoardo Giribaldi

"They fired on us like rain." One of the many testimonies of the horrors committed on the Saudi Arabia-Yemen border upon Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers has become the title of a new report issued by Human Rights Watch investigating the tragic situation in the Middle East between March 2022 and June 2023.

Saudi border guards are reported to "have used explosive weapons to kill many migrants and shot other migrants at close range, including many women and children, in a widespread and systematic pattern of attacks."

According to the report, migrations from Ethiopia occur because of economic reasons and serious human rights abuses. A situation that has been even more fuelled by the armed conflict that recently burst out in the northern part of the Horn of Africa country.

The Eastern Route

Ethiopian migrants embark on "unseaworthy vessels" from Djibouti to cross the Gulf of Aden, a tight strip of water dividing Africa from the Middle East, to reach Yemen and then, by land, the border with Saudi Arabia, specifically the Saada governorate.

The report stated how this migration route is known as the "Eastern Route" or "Yemeni Route" and is controlled by "a network of smugglers" and "traffickers" that "kidnap, detain and beat Ethiopian migrants and extort them or their families for money."

"There was a house," a young man who fled from southern Tigray because of the conflict in Ethiopia recounted, speaking about his arrival in Yemen and his experience with smugglers, "and I was put inside it. There was torture in that house. They started to beat me. I immediately called my family in Saudi Arabia, and they transferred money for me. I left [that house] after four days."

Detention centers

Once at the Yemen-Saudi border, in the Saada governorate controlled by the Houthi armed group, migrants report being caught up in what an Ethiopian 19-year-old man defined as "open-air detention centers."

"There are hundreds of thousands of migrants there. Once you get in, you cannot get out," he said. "The Houthis register everyone. Once you submit a payment to the guards, the smugglers come and take you to the border. Otherwise, you can't get out. Sometimes you can go back into Yemen, but you cannot go alone to the border."

Mass killings

From migrant camps, attempts from Ethiopian asylum seekers to cross the border into Saudi Arabia are reported to be regular, in groups of up to 200 people, with, according to direct testimonies, more women than men and unaccompanied children. 

The number was confirmed by an International Organization for Migration (IOM) report, which, in 2020, highlighted how migration from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia is "highly gendered," with women and girls outbalancing men "given the high demand for domestic work in Saudi Arabia."

Horror and violence

Survivors described the mass killings at the Yemen-Saudi border as "consistent with the use of mortar projectiles and other explosive weapons."

Attacks from Saudi border guards were reported to last "for hours or even days," and all interviewees by Human Rights Watch recalled scenes of horror and violence.

"I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined," said a 14-year-old girl. The document added that "once the attacks stopped, survivors were often approached by Saudi border guards and detained, sometimes for months, by Saudi authorities in Saudi detention facilities."

Investigation on killings

Human Rights Watch was not able to provide the exact number of migrants killed in each incident that was examined. However, data from the International Organization for Migration's Missing Migrant Project related to 2022 indicated how "at least 795 people, believed to be mostly Ethiopians, lost their lives on the route between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, predominantly in Yemen's Saada governorate at the northern border."

The report concluded that "a UN-backed investigation should be established to assess abuses against migrants and whether killings amount to crimes against humanity."

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22 August 2023, 12:30