Shooting of migrants – brutal violence in Saudi Arabia on a new level

Human Rights Watch’s recent report of the shooting deaths of scores of Ethiopian migrants on the border with Yemen has sparked international outrage. Similar allegations have been made before.

Their need became their undoing. Hundreds, possibly even thousands, of Ethiopian migrants were shot dead or seriously injured by Saudi border forces between March 2022 and June 2023, according to a report by the human rights organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) published earlier this week. This is reported by numerous eyewitnesses that HRW published in the report along with other incriminating documents.

HRW has been documenting the killings of migrants on the Yemeni-Saudi border since 2014. In recent months, however, there appears to have been a deliberate escalation in terms of both the numbers and the type of targeted killings, the human rights organization writes in its report: “The The pattern of abuse has evidently changed from a practice of occasional shootings to widespread and systematic killings,” Sam Dubberley, head of HRW’s Digital Investigations Lab, told DW. It is possible that not just hundreds but thousands of migrants were shot, he adds.

If the killings were not only widespread and systematic, but also part of a state policy of premeditated murder of a civilian population, then they would be a crime against humanity, write the authors of the HRW report. Whether that is the case is left open.

“However, eyewitnesses told us in detail about uniforms. That points in the direction of the Saudi border guards,” Dubberly said. The eyewitnesses also reported large guns and the use of trucks. “Therefore, we believe that the Saudi border guard is responsible.”

war and poverty

Most of those killed on the Yemeni-Saudi border are believed to have been extremely poor. For them, Saudi Arabia is a destination with which they associate prosperity. Around 750,000 Ethiopian migrant workers live in Saudi Arabia. Most of them traveled to Saudi Arabia by plane as part of bilateral agreements.

However, those who cannot afford to travel by air or have the papers required to enter the country choose an unofficial route, namely the land route via Yemen. Not only people from Ethiopia come via this route, but also from other countries around the Horn of Africa.

But the Ethiopian migrants registered in Saudi Arabia also often live in precarious conditions. “The women mostly work in private households, as cleaners, in childcare and the like, the men mainly in construction,” says Ulf Terlinden, head of the office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Nairobi, who from there manages the political and economic Development of Ethiopia observed.

Most Ethiopian migrants are forced to leave their country for a number of reasons, Terlinden told DW. Most flee due to a combination of economic and political factors. “Ethiopia had the second highest inflation rate in all of Africa in 2022, at over 30 percent,” Terlinden said. The economy is stagnating, the country is suffering from a massive lack of foreign exchange, there is a lack of credit, and investors have withdrawn.

“In addition, there is the drought in the entire region, political instability and the effects of the war in the Tigray region,” said the German expert. According to estimates, between 600,000 and one million people lost their lives within two years. “That’s why more and more people in Ethiopia are being forced to leave their homes. Because they fear for their personal safety – or because they simply don’t see any prospects anymore.”

Ruthless violence

Saudi border guards apparently acted unscrupulously against these people and – according to witness statements – also with a high degree of cynical-sadistic violence. Several of those interviewed by HRW said the guards asked them which parts of their bodies to fire their guns at. Then they shot at close range, the report quotes statements from a total of 42 Ethiopian migrants who were interviewed by HRW between March and June 2023.

Several eyewitnesses also reported that the border guards shot at them immediately. In other cases, they would have first allowed them to enter Saudi territory, then intercepted them and questioned them about their plans – and then shot them. Other respondents said they were attacked with mortar shells and other explosive weapons after crossing the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.

Still others testified that Saudi officials hit 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. Before that, they shot another arrested man because he refused to rape the girls.

Brutality also on the part of the Houthis

But not only the Saudi troops acted against 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 apparently abusing their power over refugees.

According to the HRW report, they make it easier for smugglers and the migrants they smuggle in to enter Yemen. Subsequently, however, they would often be blackmailed and abused. “Some are taken to detention centers and held there until they can pay an exit fee,” HRW researcher Sam Dubberly told DW.

international criticism

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock asked the Saudi Arabian government to comment on the HRW report. The Federal Foreign Office has made it clear that it is also very important for cooperation that there is a response from the Saudi government, said Baerbock. Criticism also came from the United States.

The United Nations is also alarmed. HRW’s report raises “some very serious allegations,” said spokesman Stephane Dujarric. The UN human rights office does have “some contacts” in the region. But it is “very difficult for them to verify the situation at the border”.

previous allegations

The allegations made by HRW are not the first of their kind. In October last year, experts on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council wrote to the government in Riyadh about widespread killings by Saudi security forces. It appears to be “a systematic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings, with Saudi security forces firing artillery shells and small arms at migrants,” they wrote at the time.

At the time, the Saudi government said it took the allegations seriously, but “resolutely” rejected the UN’s claim that the killings were systematic or large-scale. “Based on the limited information,” the Saudi government said at the time, “the Kingdom’s authorities have not found any information or evidence to confirm or substantiate the allegations.”

The documentation center ‘Mixed Migration Center’ also published a report in early July in which it accused the Saudi security forces of the “deliberate killing of hundreds of migrants”.

Saudi Arabia denies anonymously

Responding to the allegations made in the HRW report, an anonymous Saudi government source told AFP the allegations were “unfounded”. A request from DW to the Saudi Ministry of Foreign Affairs remained unanswered until this text was published. According to its own statements, Human Rights Watch had also requested an official Saudi statement, but received no answer.

In contrast, the reaction from Ethiopia, for which Saudi Arabia is an important partner primarily for economic reasons, appears to be more reserved and cautious. According to the Foreign Ministry in Adis Ababa, the process will be investigated together with the Saudis. “Unnecessary speculation” must be avoided at all costs until the conclusion of this investigation. Relations with Saudi Arabia are described as “excellent” in the statement.

Jean Harris

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