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Saudi border guards killed 100s of Ethiopian migrants: HRW

August 21, 2023

Security forces in Saudi Arabia have opened fire on Ethiopians trying to enter the country via Yemen, Human Rights Watch says. The number of those killed could possibly be in the thousands, according to the rights group.

Saudi soldiers at the border with Yemen
Saudi soldiers patrol at the border with Yemen (archive picture)Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Jamali

Saudi border guards have fired small arms and sometimes mortar shells at Ethiopian migrants trying to enter the Gulf kingdom through Yemen, killing hundreds of people since last year, New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) alleged on Monday.

The group's report draws on interviews with 38 Ethiopians and four relatives of people  who tried to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemen between March 2022 and June 2023, in addition to using satellite imagery, videos and photos.

Recent investigations by HRW have suggested that the killings are still taking place.

A spokeswoman for Germany's Foreign Ministry said in Berlin on Monday that it was "very concerned about the grave allegations," while saying that the government had no findings of its own about the alleged killings.

What did HRW say?

"Saudi officials are killing hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in this remote border area out of view of the rest of the world," HRW researcher Nadia Hardman said in a statement.

Hardman told DW about the processes of interviewing people but also conducting a digital investigation, which she said "really exposes visually what is happening."

"Through satellite imagery we're able to plot Saudi border guard posts all along the border, demonstrating that the Saudis knew or should have known that they were firing on migrants and asylum seekers and women and kids," she said.

"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," she said in the statement.

HRW researcher tells DW about cruel treatment of migrants

"Generally smaller groups trying to cross were faced with shootings by Saudi border guards, but [there was] really quite terrible stuff where people said that they were asked what limb of their body they wanted to have shot and then they were shot in that limb," Hardman told DW.

"Many people now have lifelong injuries and are stranded with limited medical assistance inside Yemen," Hardman said.

Some interviewees also said border guards sometimes asked victims "in which limb of their body they would prefer to be shot," the report said. 

"All interviewees described scenes of horror: women, men, and children strewn across the mountainous landscape severely injured, dismembered, or already dead," it said.

The latest killings appear to be "widespread and systematic" and may amount to crimes against humanity, Hardman said.

Saudi guards accused of killing Ethiopian migrants

What has Riyadh said?

According to The Associated Press, a Saudi government official, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak publicly, called the HRW allegations "unfounded and not based on reliable sources."

He offered no evidence to support the assertion.

Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia denied a UN report from October claiming that "cross-border artillery shelling and small arms fire by Saudi Arabia security forces killed approximately 430 migrants" in southern Saudi Arabia and northern Yemen during the first four months of 2022.

Sam Dubberly, the managing director of the Digital Investigations Lab at Human Rights Watch, said that efforts to get some form of response from Saudi Arabia have come to nothing.

"As we have also investigated these killings since killings at the border since 2014. All along this time, the Saudis response has been denial or simply no response," he told DW.

Saudi Arabia's mission to the UN in Geneva sent a letter in March saying that it "categorically refutes" allegations of such border atrocities. It also said it could not "confirm or substantiate the allegations" because of the "limited information" provided by the world body.

What is the situation of Ethiopians in the region?

The alleged atrocities have taken place against the background of the civil war in Yemen.

There, a Saudi-led coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels who had seized the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, from the internationally recognised government in 2004, though the conflict has calmed somewhat owing to a truce that has largely held despite expiring in October last year.

Houthi rebels allegedly make tens of thousands of dollars a week smuggling migrants over the border to Saudi Arabia, with tens of thousands of Ethiopians displaced among other things by the two-year civil war in Ethiopia's northern Tigray region.

Some 750,000 Ethiopians now live in the kingdom, with as many as 450,000 likely having entered without authorization, according to 2022 statistics from the International Organization for Migration.

Riyadh has been sending thousands back to their home country in cooperation with Addis Ababa.

HRW has reported abuses against Ethiopian migrants in Saudi Arabia and Yemen for nearly a decade.

rm, tj/fb (AP, AFP, dpa)