Hundreds of Ethiopian refugees killed by Saudi border guards between March 2022 and June 2023, new report reveals

Hundreds of Ethiopian refugees killed by Saudi border guards between March 2022 and June 2023, new report reveals

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, according to an international human rights organization.

“Human Rights Watch” organization said in a report issued Monday, “If these killings, which appear to be ongoing, are carried out as part of a Saudi government policy to kill immigrants, then they constitute a crime against humanity.”

The organization’s 73-page report concluded that explosive weapons were widely and systematically used by Saudi border guards to kill migrants and that they fired at close range at other migrants, including women and children.

In some cases, Saudi border guards would ask the migrants which part of their bodies they would like to be shot at and then shoot them at close range. They also fired explosive weapons at migrants who were trying to flee back to Yemen, according to the report.

“In this remote border region, out of sight of the world, Saudi officials are killing hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers,” said Nadia Hardiman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. She added that “spending billions on professional golf tournaments, soccer clubs, and entertainment events to improve Saudi Arabia’s image should not distract attention from these horrific crimes.”

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 people, including 38 Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who attempted to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023 and four relatives or friends of people who attempted to cross during the same period. It analyzed more than 350 videos and photos posted on social media or collected from other sources, as well as satellite images covering several hundred square kilometers.

About 750,000 Ethiopians live and work in Saudi Arabia, some of whom migrated for economic reasons and some of whom fled as a result of grave human rights violations in Ethiopia, some of which were committed during the recent brutal armed conflict in the north.

Migrants and asylum seekers said they crossed the Gulf of Aden in unseaworthy vessels and were then taken by Yemeni smugglers to Saada governorate, north of Yemen, near the Saudi border.

Migrants’ attempts to cross the border into Saudi Arabia in groups of up to 200 people have been regular and repeated each time Saudi border guards send them back to Yemen. Migrants said that their groups are predominantly women but also include men and unaccompanied children.

Human Rights Watch identified from satellite imagery the locations of Saudi border guards that corroborate these accounts. It also identified what appears to be an anti-ambush and mine-armored vehicle that was stationed from October 10, 2021, to December 31, 2022, at a Saudi border guard site. The vehicle appeared to be equipped with a heavy machine gun mounted in a turret on its roof.

People traveling in groups described being attacked with mortars and other explosive weapons by Saudi border guards as soon as they crossed the border.

Interviewees described 28 incidents in which Saudi border guards used explosive weapons. Survivors said that the Saudis sometimes held them in detention centers, where they stayed for months in some cases.

Everyone described horrific scenes: women, men, and children scattered across the mountainous terrain, badly wounded, dismembered, or lifeless. One person said, “I used to eat with people who I would later see dead. Identification of some has become impossible because their body parts are scattered, while some were cut in two.”

A digital investigation by Human Rights Watch of verified and geo-located videos posted on social media or sent directly to Human Rights Watch revealed dead and injured migrants on mountain trails and in camps and medical facilities.

Geospatial analysis also revealed an increase in burial sites near migrant camps and an expansion of border security infrastructure.

Members of the Independent Panel of Forensic Experts of the International Council for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture, an international group of eminent forensic experts, analyzed verified videos and photos showing injured or deceased migrants to determine the causes of their injuries. They concluded that some of the injuries showed “clear patterns consistent with the detonation of munitions capable of producing heat and fragmentation.” Other injuries showed “characteristics consistent with gunshot wounds,” and in one case, “burns were visible.”

Persons traveling in small groups or alone said that Saudi border guards armed with rifles shot them as soon as they crossed the Yemeni-Saudi border, while others described being beaten with stones and metal rods by the guards. Fourteen interviewees witnessed or were themselves victims of shooting incidents at close range, and six of them were targeted with explosive weapons and gunfire.

Some said that Saudi border guards were coming down from their posts to beat the survivors. A 17-year-old boy said that border guards forced him and other survivors to rape two female survivors after guards executed another migrant who refused to rape another survivor.

Human Rights Watch emphasized that Saudi Arabia should immediately rescind any policy, whether explicit or de facto, to use lethal force against migrants and asylum seekers, including targeting them with explosive weapons and shooting them at close range.

It stressed that the government should investigate and discipline or prosecute security personnel responsible for unlawful killings, injuries, and torture at Yemen’s borders, as appropriate.

The organization also demanded that the concerned governments publicly call on Saudi Arabia to end any such policy and press for accountability, and urged the opening of a UN-backed investigation to assess abuses against migrants and whether the killings amounted to crimes against humanity.

“The Saudi border guards knew, or should have known, that they were shooting unarmed civilians,” Hardman said. “Unless justice is served for what appear to be serious crimes against Ethiopian migrants and asylum-seekers, it will only lead to an increase in killings and abuses.”