Addis Abeba – Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report today alleging that Saudi border guards have killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Yemen-Saudi border since March 2022. HRW stated that if these killings are part of Saudi government policy, they could potentially be classified as a crime against humanity.
The report highlights a systematic pattern of attacks, with Saudi border guards reportedly using explosive weapons and shooting migrants at close range, including women and children. Saudi Arabia is home to approximately 750,000 Ethiopian migrants, many of whom migrate for economic reasons.
Nadia Hardman, a researcher at HRW focusing on refugee and migrant rights, expressed concern over the remote location of these killings, stating that they occur away from the view of the rest of the world.
HRW has been documenting cases of migrant killings at the Yemen-Saudi border since 2014. The latest report reveals an intentional escalation in both the frequency and manner of targeted killings.
To compile the report titled “They Fired on Us Like Rain: Saudi Arabian Mass Killings of Ethiopian Migrants at the Yemen-Saudi Border,” HRW conducted interviews with 42 individuals, including 38 Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who had attempted to cross the border between March 2022 and June 2023. Additionally, several videos, photographs, and satellite images covering hundreds of square kilometers were analyzed.
Surviving migrants testified to HRW that Saudi border guards targeted them with mortar projectiles and other explosive weapons once they had crossed the border. HRW has identified specific Saudi border guard posts through satellite images that correspond to the survivors’ accounts. The presence of a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle equipped with a heavy machine gun, detected between October 10, 2021, and December 31, 2022, was also noted.
Survivors also mentioned being detained in Saudi facilities for prolonged periods, with some held for months. Disturbing videos verified and geolocated by HRW’s digital investigation showed deceased and injured migrants in trails, camps, and medical facilities. Geospatial analysis revealed expanding burial sites near migrant camps and increased border security infrastructure.
Forensic experts from the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims examined verified videos and photographs, concluding that certain injuries displayed consistent patterns with explosive munitions, heat, and fragmentation. Other injuries showed characteristics indicative of gunshot wounds, while one instance revealed visible burns.
Ethiopian migrants have long raised concerns about discriminatory treatment by Saudi authorities. In 2021, Addis Standard reported on the plight of Ethiopian detainees in Saudi Arabia’s prisons, exposing a targeted crackdown on migrants, many of whom were Ethiopian. Nursing mothers, infants, and pregnant women among the detainees faced inadequate food, medicine, and sleeping arrangements.
Multiple reports also emphasize the Saudi authorities’ focus on Ethiopian migrants, resulting in the deportation of nearly 100,000 individuals last year alone, categorized as “illegals” by the government. Around half a million Ethiopian migrants have been deported from Saudi Arabia since 2017. Some of those deported have recounted incidents of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of Saudi security personnel to Addis Standard. Nonetheless, Saudi authorities argue that the crackdown aims to combat illegal activities and ensure the safety of citizens and foreign residents.
In light of these distressing findings, HRW calls on the Saudi Arabian government to immediately revoke any policy permitting lethal force against migrants and asylum seekers, including the use of explosive weapons and close-range shootings. The report stated that the government should conduct a thorough investigation and hold those responsible for unlawful killings, injuries, and torture at the Yemeni border accountable. Furthermore, HRW suggests the establishment of a UN-backed investigation to assess abuses against migrants and determine whether these killings indeed amount to crimes against humanity. AS