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Saudi Arabia: Are the killings of Ethiopians systematic?

August 23, 2023

Saudi Arabia is playing down the alleged killing of thousands of Ethiopians, but similar accusations have been made before.

Ethiopian migrants run from Yemen towards the border with Saudi Arabia
The poorest Ethiopian migrants don't arrive by air to Saudi Arabia but take the land route via YemenImage: Nariman El-Mofty/AP Photo/picture alliance

Hundreds, possibly even thousands, of Ethiopian migrants were allegedly shot dead or seriously injured by Saudi Arabia's border guards between March 2022 and June 2023, according to a report by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW).

HRW has been documenting killings of migrants at the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia since 2014, but the past few months appear to have seen an escalation in both the numbers and types of targeted killings, the human rights organization writes in its report which was published earlier this week.

"We show how the pattern of abuses has changed from an apparent practice of occasional shootings to widespread and systematic killings," Sam Dubberley, the head of HRW's Digital Investigations Lab, told DW. "This is obviously very egregious behavior," he adds.

"Eyewitnesses told us in detail about uniforms, large guns and the use of trucks, which points in the direction of the Saudi National Border Guard," Dubberly said. "Therefore, we do believe that the Saudi Border Guard is responsible for this."

If the killings were not only widespread and systematic, but also part of a state policy of deliberate murder of civilians, it would be a crime against humanity, write the authors of the HRW report. However, they do not say whether this is the case.

It is not the first time that such allegations have been made against Saudi Arabia.  Last October, experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council mentioned widespread killings by Saudi security forces in a letter to the government in Riyadh. It appeared to be "a systematic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings in which Saudi security forces fire artillery shells and small arms at migrants," they wrote at the time.

In response, the Saudi government had said that it took the allegations seriously, but "strongly" rejected the UN's account that the killings were systematic or large-scale.

In early July, the Mixed Migration Center, an independent documentation center, also submitted a report in which it accused Saudi security forces of "deliberately killing hundreds of migrants."

A burial site at Al Raqw with white stones
Human Rights Watch accuses Saudi border guards of having killed thousands of migrants from Ethiopia over timeImage: Human Rights Watch

Escaping war and poverty

Some 750,000 Ethiopian migrant workers live in Saudi Arabia. The majority of them arrived by air under bilateral agreements.

However, those who cannot afford to travel by air or cannot afford the papers required to enter the country take the unofficial land route via Yemen. This route is not only used by people from Ethiopia, but also from other countries around the Horn of Africa.

But even the Ethiopian migrants registered in Saudi Arabia often live in precarious conditions.

"Women mostly work in private households, as cleaners or in childcare, men mostly in construction," Ulf Terlinden, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Nairobi, who monitors Ethiopia's political and economic development from there, told DW.

Most Ethiopians flee due to the nexus of economic and political factors in their country. "Ethiopia recorded the second highest inflation rate in all of Africa in 2022, at over 30%," Terlinden said. The economy is stagnant, the country suffers from a massive lack of foreign currency, there is a lack of credit, and investors have pulled out, he added.

"Add to that the drought throughout the region, political instability and the effects of the war in the Tigray region," the German expert said. "There are so many reasons why more and more people in Ethiopia are feeling compelled to leave their homes as they fear for their personal safety or because they simply no longer see any prospects," he told DW.

In turn, it is highly likely that most of those killed on the Yemeni-Saudi border were extremely poor people who thought of Saudi Arabia as a destination associated with prosperity.

Ethiopian migrants near the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia cover in rugs and wait near a bush
Thousands of Ethiopian migrants hope for a better and safer life in Saudi Arabia amid deterioating circumstances in their home country.Image: Mohammed Mohammed/dpa/picture alliance

Ruthless violence against migrants?

Saudi border guards allegedly acted against these unarmed people ruthlessly and with a high degree of cynical sadistic violence, eyewitnesses told HRW. Several of those interviewed by HRW said that the guards had asked them which parts of their bodies they should fire their weapons into. They then fired at close range, the report quotes.

Several eyewitnesses also reported that the border guards immediately shot at them. In other cases, they first let them enter Saudi territory, then stopped and questioned them about their plans, and then shot at them.

According to further interviewees, some were also attacked with mortar shells and other explosive weapons after they crossed the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.

Others stated that Saudi officials had beaten them with stones and metal bars.

A 17-year-old Ethiopian man described how Saudi border guards allegedly forced him and other survivors to rape two surviving girls. Prior to this, he said, they had shot a man for refusing to rape the girls.

Drone view of the Saudi border with yellow circels around a car which is supposedly a Saudi border control vehicle
Survivors report horrific and sadistic violence by the Saudi border guards against migrants.Image: Human Rights Watch

Houthi's brutality on the other side of the border

Yet it is not only the Saudi forces that are cracking down on the refugees. Their opponents, the insurgent Houthis, who rose up against the Yemeni government in 2013 and now control large parts of war-torn Yemen, are also apparently abusing their power against refugees.

"They extort bribes from migrants or transfer them to detention centers where people are abused until they can pay an exit fee," HRW's Sam Dubberly told DW.

International outcry

As a consequence of the allegations, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has meanwhile called on the Saudi Arabian government to comment on the HRW report.

Baerbock said that her ministry had made it clear that it was also very important that the Saudi government respond in the interest of ties between the two countries. The United States and the UN have also voiced their concern. HRW's report raises "some very serious allegations," UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

In response to the accusations raised in the HRW report, an anonymous Saudi government source told the AFP news agency that they were "unfounded." A DW inquiry to the Saudi Foreign Ministry remained unanswered by the time this text was published. Human Rights Watch also said it had requested an official Saudi statement, but received no response.

In contrast, the reaction from Ethiopia, for which Saudi Arabia is an important partner primarily for economic reasons, appears rather reserved.

Ethiopia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement in which they announced to "promptly investigate the incident in tandem with the Saudi Authorities."

"At this critical juncture, it is highly advised to exercise utmost restraint from making unnecessary speculations until investigation is complete," the ministry wrote, adding that "the two countries, notwithstanding the unfortunate tragedy, enjoy excellent longstanding relations."

Saudi guards accused of killing Ethiopian migrants

This article was published originally in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East