'Mass killings': Hundreds of migrants killed by Saudi Arabian border guards, human rights group says

An image from 2019 shows Ethiopian migrants boarding a small boat outside Djibouti in the hopes of reaching Saudi Arabia. Credit: AP

Saudi Arabian border guards have killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants who tried to cross the border from Yemen in recent years, according to a new report from a human rights group.

Guards used explosive weapons and fired people at close range "in a pattern that is widespread and systemic", Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Monday.

The rights group cited eyewitness reports of attacks by troops and images that showed dead bodies and burial sites on migrant routes, saying the death toll could even be “possibly thousands.”

The United Nations has already questioned Saudi Arabia about its troops opening fire on the migrants in an escalating pattern of attacks along its southern border with war-torn Yemen.

Saudi officials have previously denied its troops killed migrants and did not respond to request for comment from journalists on Monday.

Some 750,000 Ethiopians live in Saudi Arabia, with as many as 450,000 likely having entered the kingdom without authorisation, according to 2022 statistics from the International Organisation for Migration.

The two-year civil war in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region displaced tens of thousands of people.

Saudi Arabia, struggling with youth unemployment, has been sending thousands of people back to Ethiopia.

Human Rights Watch said it spoke to 38 Ethiopian migrants and four relatives of people who attempted to cross the border between March 2022 and June 2023 who said they saw Saudi guards shoot at migrants or launch explosives at groups.

The report said the group also analysed over 350 videos and photographs posted to social media or gathered from other sources filmed between May 12, 2021, and July 18, 2023.

It also examined several hundred square miles of satellite imagery captured between February 2022 and July 2023.

“Saudi officials are killing hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in this remote border area out of view of the rest of the world,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels took control of the capital almost a decade ago. Credit: AP

“Spending billions buying up professional golf, football clubs, and major entertainment events to improve the Saudi image should not deflect attention from these horrendous crimes.”

The UN has said that the Houthi rebel-controlled immigration office in Yemen “collaborates with traffickers to systematically direct migrants” to Saudi Arabia, bringing in $50,000 (£39,000) a week.

The Houthis have held Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, since September 2014. A Saudi-led coalition has battled the Houthis since March 2015, without dislodging them from the capital.

Fighting has largely halted between the Saudi-led forces and the Houthis as Riyadh seeks a way to end the war.

Migrants from Ethiopia have found themselves detained, abused and even killed in Saudi Arabia and Yemen during the war.

But in recent months, there has been growing concern from the UN human rights body about Saudi forces attacking migrants coming in from Yemen.

An October 2022 letter to the kingdom from the UN said its investigators “received concerning allegations of cross-border artillery shelling and small arms fire allegedly by Saudi security forces causing the deaths of up to 430 and injuring 650 migrants.”

“If migrants are captured, they are reportedly oftentimes subjected to torture by being lined up and shot through the side of the leg to see how far the bullet will go or asked if they prefer to be shot in the hand or the leg,” the letter from the UN reads.

“Survivors of such attacks reported having to ‘play dead’ for a period of time in order to escape.”

A letter sent by Saudi Arabia’s mission to the UN in Geneva in March said that it “categorically refutes” allegations that the kingdom carries out any “systematic” killings on the border.

However, it also said the UN provided “limited information” so it could not “confirm or substantiate the allegations.”

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