Between March 2022 and June 2023, Saudi Arabian border guards allegedly killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants, and asylum seekers who tried to enter their nation through the Yemeni border. A new report by Human Rights Watch has levelled these serious allegations against Saudi border guards. In the 73-page report titled “They Fired on us like Rain”, HRW has shared graphic testimonies of those who somehow came out of harm’s way alive to share their harrowing experience.
According to a report issued by Human Rights Watch today, Saudi border guards have been responsible for the deaths of several hundred Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Yemen-Saudi border during the period spanning from March 2022 to June 2023.
One 14-year-old survivor Hamdiya said, “We were fired on repeatedly. I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined. I saw 30 killed people on the spot. I pushed myself under a rock and slept there. I could feel people sleeping around me. I realized what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies. I woke up and I was alone.”
As per the HRW report, Hamdiya shared her story after she arrived in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a with the help of other migrants. Further, on the basis of the testimonies of ten other interviewees, the HRW report claimed that around 1,278 migrants attempted to cross the border in 11 large groups. Out of them, they claimed that at least 655 migrants were killed.
One survivor told HRW that there were more than 170 people in his group and 90 of them were killed.
Nadia Hardman is a researcher in the refugee and migrant rights division at HRW. While speaking to Euronews, she said, “There are definitely many more deaths because it’s impossible to get an accurate figure. It’s an inaccessible area and we are interviewing people who have just fled a scene of absolute horror, they’re devastated.”
The HRW report claimed that Saudi border guards allegedly even used “explosive weapons” to kill many migrants at close range. As stated in the HRW report, the interviewees gave varied responses on the use of explosive weapons. Some described explosive weapons “like a bomb,” mortar or rocket launchers being fired from the “back of cars.”
Some of the survivors alleged that in some instances, Saudi border guards first asked survivors in which limb of their body they preferred to be shot, before shooting them at close range in that limb.
HRW researcher Hardman claimed that earlier the incidences of killing were irregular but it now seemed that it is widespread and systematic.
She said, “HRW has been documenting killings since 2014, but they were irregular and infrequent. When we started investigating, we didn’t expect this to be so gore. We didn’t expect to say that (the killings) are widespread and systematic and could amount to a crime against humanity because the scale is incredible.”
Saudi Arabia denies HRW’s serious allegations
However, Saudi Arabia has outrightly denied these allegations. The Saudi government stated that it took the allegations seriously but strongly reject the UN’s characterisation that the killings were systematic or large-scale, as reported by BBC.
In its reply, the Saudi government said, “Based on the limited information provided, authorities within the Kingdom have discovered no information or evidence to confirm or substantiate the allegations.”
The heavy influx of migrants
Yemen is currently facing one of the most severe humanitarian crises globally, where the majority of its people depend on aid for their survival. An armed conflict began in Yemen in 2014, and since then it is alleged that both the government and the Houthi armed group have detained migrants in poor conditions.
Further, it is alleged that Houthi forces often “extort bribes” from the migrants “abusing people until they could pay an exit fee”.
In its report, HRW highlighted that in 2014 it reported instances of abuses, including torture of migrants in detention camps in Yemen. These camps were operated by traffickers who aimed to extort money from the migrants.
In 2018, HRW highlighted instances where Yemeni guards tortured and allegedly raped Ethiopian and other migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa at a detention centre in Aden. These guards reportedly worked in collaboration with smugglers to deport migrants in large groups to dangerous conditions at sea.
Further, the HRW report highlighted that in 2021, many migrants, the majority of whom were Ethiopian migrants were burned to death after Houthi forces launched projectiles into an immigration detention centre in Sana’a, which they controlled, causing a fire.
Furthermore, for many years, Ethiopian migrants have been taking the dangerous “Eastern Route” or “Yemeni Route” to move from the Horn of Africa, crossing the Gulf of Aden and Yemen, and eventually reaching Saudi Arabia. Over 90 per cent of these migrants using this route are Ethiopian. While migrants from Somalia, Eritrea, and occasionally other East African countries also utilize this route, Ethiopians make up the majority. Notably, there has been a rise in the number of women and girls taking this route in recent times.