Ethiopians at the Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, on 30 March 2022, after their repatriation from Saudi Arabia © EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP/File. - Photo: 2023

UN May Seek Accountability for Saudi Killings of Hundreds of Migrants

By Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS. 23 August 2023 (IDN) — The United Nations has expressed serious concern over the killings of hundreds of migrants, mostly Ethiopians, crossing war-ravaged Yemen trying to reach Saudi Arabia.

“I think trying to stop migration using the barrel of a gun is intolerable,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on August 21.

Asked about the killings detailed in a new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report on August 20, Dujarric said: “We’ve seen the report, which I think is very concerning. It raises some very serious allegations. I know our human rights office has been aware of the situation, and has had some contacts, but it has been very challenging for them to verify the situation on the border.”

“I think it bears reminding because we have seen in many cases around the world cases of violence against migrants, against those seeking refuge and that human beings, whether they are migrants, whether they are refugees, asylum seekers, all need to be treated with dignity to have all their human rights respected in accordance with international law. And I think trying to stop migration using the barrel of a gun is intolerable” he said. 

Asked if there should be an international investigation into the killings, Dujarric said: “Obviously, there are specific processes for these things, but there needs to be accountability. “

Eyewitness accounts of some of the killings.

The report from Human Rights Watch provides eyewitness accounts of some of the killings.

The report accuses Saudi border guards of killing at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023.

Human Rights Watch said its research indicates that, at time of writing, the killings are continuing.

“Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons and shot people at close range, including women and children, in a pattern that is widespread and systematic. If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these killings would be a crime against humanity.”

In some instances, HRW said, Saudi border guards first asked survivors in which limb of their body they preferred to be shot, before shooting them at close range. Saudi border guards also fired explosive weapons at migrants who had just been released from temporary Saudi detention and were attempting to flee back to Yemen.

It is estimated that approximately 750,000 Ethiopians live and work in Saudi Arabia. While many migrate for economic reasons, others have fled because of serious human rights abuses by their government, including during the recent, brutal armed conflict in northern Ethiopia, according to HRW.

Ethiopian migrants have for decades attempted the dangerous migration route – known as the “Eastern Route” or sometimes the “Yemeni Route” – from the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden, through Yemen and into Saudi Arabia.

“It is estimated that well over 90 percent of the migrants on this route are Ethiopians. The route is also used by migrants from Somalia and Eritrea, and occasionally other east African nations. In recent years, there has been an increase in the proportion of women and girls migrating on the eastern route,” the report said.

HRW said migrants and asylum seekers described their journey to the Yemen-Saudi border as rife with abuse and controlled by a network of smugglers and traffickers who physically assaulted them to extort payments from family members or contacts in Ethiopia or Saudi Arabia.

Among their recommendations, according to Cable News Network (CNN), HRW has called on the United Nations to establish an independent investigation into the killing against of migrants and asylum seekers. 

The HRW report comes nearly a year after a group of UN experts laid out allegations that they had received that Saudi security forces had killed as many as 430 migrants and injured 650 in cross-border shelling and shooting between January 1 and April 30, 2022.

The experts said it appeared to be “a systematic pattern of large-scale indiscriminate cross-border killings.” 

CNN said HRW had interviewed 27 people who described 28 separate explosive weapons incidents from the Saudi side of the border after they had crossed the border from Yemen into Saudi territory, sometimes lasting hours or even days.

Interviewees described being attacked by Saudi border guards, describing their uniforms and describing the explosive weapons being “like a bomb.”  

“We were fired on repeatedly. I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined. I saw 30 killed people on the spot. I pushed myself under a rock and slept there. I could feel people sleeping around me. I realized what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies. I woke up and I was alone,” Hamdiya, a 14-year-old whose name was changed to protect her identity, told HRW. 

A Saudi government source told CNN that the “the allegations included in the Human Rights Watch report about Saudi border guards shooting Ethiopians while they were crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border are unfounded and not based on reliable sources.”

The source, who requested anonymity citing longstanding norms around the government’s communications with the media, did not elaborate further.  [IDN-InDepthNews]

Photo: Ethiopians at the Bole Airport in Addis Ababa, on 30 March 2022, after their repatriation from Saudi Arabia © EDUARDO SOTERAS / AFP/File.

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