Murderous border controls

Murderous border controls: the mass killings of Ethiopian migrants along the Saudi Arabian – Yemen border

Large numbers of Ethiopian migrants are systematically being killed on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia on a daily basis, directly and deliberately by security officials operating under Saudi Arabian state authority. The targeted nature and scale of these killings and the fact that the perpetrators are operating under state authority make this border crossing an exceptionally lethal one. This article intends to shed further light on this atrocity and bring it to the attention of a larger audience, as this unprecedented instance of direct state violence against migrants, leading to the death and injury of hundreds, constitutes crimes against humanity but is barely receiving any international attention, let alone leading to any concrete action to hold the perpetrators accountable.

The violence and violations against migrants we see on this route from the Horn of Africa towards Saudi Arabia is on a scale probably only comparable to Libya, with one striking difference in the case of the Saudi-Yemen border, where migrants are deliberately targeted and killed by security officials operating under state authority. As such, while serious, widespread and systematic human rights violations take place all along this route, as described in the recent MMC-backed Captive Commodities report, this article is deliberately focused on these killings by security officials at the Saudi border.

Deliberate killing of hundreds of migrants by Saudi security forces

Early October 2022, several Special Rapporteurs and Working Groups of the United Nations issued a communication, to highlight allegations of cross-border artillery shelling and small arms fire allegedly by Saudi security forces causing the deaths of up to 430 and injuring 650 migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, in Sa’dah governorate, Yemen, and Jizan province, Saudi Arabia, between 1 January and 30 April 2022.

Shockingly, the rapporteurs concluded that while previously migrants were killed when caught in cross-fire between parties to the Yemen conflict, since a decline in active incidents on the northern frontlines in 2022, they now appear to be directly targeted by Saudi security forces. These forces are believed to be pursuing a policy of excessive use of firearm force to stop and deter migrants from crossing the Saudi-Yemeni border. Using snipers and mortars, individuals as well as larger groups of migrants are targeted. There are also allegations of shootings of migrants caught inside Saudi territory. The communication includes information on a clandestine cemetery in North Yemen, close to the Saudi border, containing up to 10,000 bodies of migrants. If migrants are captured – the UN communication continues – they are reportedly oftentimes subjected to torture by being lined up and shot through the side of the leg to see how far the bullet will go or asked if they prefer to be shot in the hand or the leg. Additionally, girls as young as 13 years old have reportedly been raped by Saudi security forces and pushed back across the border into Yemen without their clothes.

The Mixed Migration Centre’s independent interviews with survivors provided similar accounts about the prevalence of bodies and the smell of rotting corpses permeating the border area. Specifically at the border, local Yemenis in the area report seeing piles of bodies lying exposed for lengthy periods of time, often placed – where possible – in shallow graves.

“I had been there for three months, the brokers order us to go to the border whenever there are migrants who are wounded from attempting to cross the Saudi border. We pull them back and take them to the hospital in Sa’dah town. If the attack from Saudi border guards kills them, we pull their bodies back and bury them around the border. This had been our day-to-day duty for three months.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 21)
“The firing weapon started when we reached the bottom of the mountain. The weapon fired was loud. The Saudi police were wearing green uniforms with symbols. While the Saudi police firing weapons on us, many migrants were running either backward or forward and became victims, but I was traveling like a snake after hearing the bullet firing from Saudi police to escape from bullets; that helped me to survive. Six ambulance cars came and collected the dead. Other police took those who survived in other cars. However, many migrants’ bodies were still left by Saudi police.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 33)

“The pungent smell of the dead human body was disturbing us during our attempts to cross the border.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 22)

While the rapporteurs, in their October communique, say they do not wish to prejudge the accuracy of these allegations, they do remark that the information at hand appears sufficiently reliable, and indicates a matter of such gravity, that it warrants the most serious attention. They conclude that there appears to be a systematic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings causing a very large number of deaths and injuries, which if the information proves to be accurate, constitute flagrant violations of the rights to life, personal safety and integrity under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), as well as a range of other international conventions.

In response to the communication, the Saudi Arabian government, via their permanent mission in Geneva, initially asked for an extension of the deadline to respond. Subsequently, Saudi Arabia responded that they refuted the suggestions stated in the October letter, saying they did not find any information or evidence which would substantiate the allegations, complaining that the limited information and evidence provided by the UN does not make it possible to conduct a comprehensive and timely investigation while asking for more evidence.

Additional information confirming the atrocities on the Yemen-Saudi Arabian border

MMC received additional information as well as conducted its own independent research with Ethiopian returnee migrants that corroborate the violations detailed in the report. While the UN communication included information for only part of 2022, it is estimated, based on further information received by MMC, that at least 794 people were killed and 1,703 injured as a result of incidents at the northern border during the whole of 2022. The actual number may be far higher due to testimony reports of informal burial in remote places and testimony that bodies left unburied are consumed by wild dogs. One returnee migrant mentioned a gorge-like area along the border, where he claimed there was a high number of unburied dead migrants.

“The explosive hurts the migrants, and some of them die in the ravine from their wounds because no one is pulling them back to Yemen. Also, migrants who are exhausted from their prior travels and mistreatment are unable to handle the difficulty of traveling on the mountain, and as a result, they tumble down [into the gorge]; they die there.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 35)

“When the security camera catches you, the border guards fire heavy explosives.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 21)

These and other quotes in this article come from interviews with Ethiopian returnees conducted in June 2023, who describe a litany of abuse from the moment they start their journey in Ethiopia as described in the earlier referenced Captive Commodities report. When migrants cross the border into Saudi Arabia, they face lethal targeting from manned and non-manned weapon positions along the border.

Information received by MMC as well as witness testimony from recent Ethiopian returnees indeed speak of sporadic shooting upon movement when the Saudi security forces are not present, with reports of the use of sensor-triggered, or camera-activated automatic shooting systems, even at night. MMC interviewees mention the use of heavy machine guns at the border including what they identify as the DshK (‘Dushka’), a 0.5 calibre machine gun and possibly mortar rounds or other heavy explosive weapons that are able to kill many with one hit.

Many migrants are killed and injured, and many witness deaths around them, sometimes during multiple attempts to cross the border. For example, a 28-year-old returnee described to MMC how on his first attempt to cross the border, 40 out of 70 migrants died due to firing by security forces in Saudi Arabia, while on the second attempt, 20 migrants died due to similar attacks.

Some migrants are caught by police, and some appear to make it through, and some find paid informal work as herders or domestic workers in the country. Even for those that finally find work, most migrant stories end with them being caught by police as undocumented migrants, imprisoned for weeks or months in abusive or neglectful conditions (where some die, reportedly) and then they are deported, empty-handed, back to Ethiopia.

To some extent, the data on deaths mentioned above is publicly available through IOM’s Missing Migrants Project (MMP). In 2022, MMP recorded 823 dead or missing migrants along the longer Horn of Africa to Yemen route, most of which indeed occurred along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border. 788 of those deaths are due to ‘violence’ according to MMP. However, this is a broad category and may include those that are injured and killed while transiting through a conflict zone, possibly due to being caught in cross-fire.

As mentioned above, and based on additional information received by MMC and the interviews conducted, MMC believes many of these deaths that occur at the border are likely due to snipers and artillery shelling by security officials at the border operating under Saudi state authority. In other words: hundreds of migrants may have not died as a result of generalised violence or even by state complicity or wilful neglect, but have been directly, indiscriminately killed by officials operating under state authority.

Mass killings are continuing in 2023

These mass killings did not stop in 2022 and seem to continue unabated into 2023. While the MMP does not yet feature data on migrant deaths along this route for 2023, MMC has received information that between January and April 2023, at least 75 migrants were killed by officials at the Saudi border, through artillery shelling or snipers, and 226 injured.

It is important to note all this information is not just coming from single sources. Witness statements are cross-referenced through various means and as far as possible third-party verification takes place.

“One day, 40 Ethiopian people died when the Saudi police fired a weapon that exploded and killed migrants. If the Saudi police fired on the rocks, the stone scattered and cut the body of migrants, which led to the death of many migrants.” (Ethiopian male returnee, age 28)

“During the journey through that mountainous border area, we were 30 in number, of which four were males. In that journey, 26 lost their life due to the Saudi polices attack, and only us four females survived [but injured]. Traffickers who were leading us were also killed by the Saudi policies firing rocket-like weapons which explode and destroy many migrants.” (Ethiopian female returnee and survivor who lost all her fingers, age 18)

The violence at the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia committed by security forces is by no means the only extreme violence migrants from the Horn of Africa (mostly Ethiopians) have to endure along this route, which has been and still is one of busiest mixed migration routes globally, with around 8,000-10,000 arrivals on Yemen’s shores every month for the last decade (mostly Ethiopians though recent information points at increasing numbers of Somalis). Recent research by Ravenstone Consult – backed by the Mixed Migration Centre – described an endless cycle of violence, abuse, exploitation, trafficking, slavery, and killings all along this route, at every step of the way, including deep inside Saudi Arabia inside police stations and prisons where many migrants also reportedly die. However, as mentioned in the introduction, this article deliberately focused on the killings by security forces at the Saudi border, because it is such an extreme example of direct killing by state-authorised officials.

Information received by MMC and survivor testimony from returnees in Ethiopia, point to at least some of the violence allegedly committed by Saudi Arabian state officials.  However, some respondents also mentioned that the border guards might be hired soldiers from other countries, including Sudan. MMC has been unable to independently verify this information and to provide conclusive evidence on the nationality of the snipers and those firing the artillery. However, regardless of the nationality of every individual perpetrator, what is clear is that lethal violence against migrants at the Saudi border is committed by uniformed security officials operating under Saudi Arabian state authority.

Where is the international outrage and follow-up?

After the publication of the UN communication introduced above, one would expect massive outrage, widespread international media coverage and public condemnation of Saudi Arabia. Yet, adding insult to injury, none of that happened. With the exception of Human Rights Watch, which issued a short dispatch in December 2022, and some coverage in November 2022 in Arabian news outlets Ansarollah and Al Mayadeen – both containing shocking video and photo footage of the massacres committed by officials at the Saudi border – there was no reporting on it. Of course, it cannot be excluded that this has been raised behind closed doors, in bilateral discussions through direct diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia. However, given Saudi Arabia’s status as a Western ally, a major oil producer (amidst an energy crisis due to sanctions on Russia) and the country’s regional and geopolitical importance, expectations may need to be modest in this regard.

By comparison, in December 2022, Lighthouse Reports published an investigation with video footage, showing how Bulgarian border guards used live ammunition and shot a 19-year-old Syrian asylum seeker, who survived the attack but was left with life-changing injuries. This investigation was met with widespread public outrage. Completely justified outrage. Thousands of migrants die every year, along many different migration routes all over the world, and it could be argued many of these deaths occur as a result of state policies.

But what is happening on the Yemen-Saudi Arabian border is different. Hundreds of migrants are routinely, indiscriminately killed, through snipers and artillery, directly by state-authorised officials. But instead of widespread international outrage, this situation is met with near-complete silence.

It raises the question why? As we stated in the foreword of the Captive Commodities report, perhaps the world has become numb in the face of yet more stories of abuse of migrants. Perhaps this route is simply too far away from the global north, and because the final destination of this route is not Europe, we simply care less? Possibly, the perpetrators responsible for these mass killings of migrants work for a country that is too important on the geopolitical stage to be alienated. But the evidence appears to support the fact that a sovereign member of the United Nations is employing or authorising lethal and brutal tactics to summarily execute and injure hundreds of migrants whose only misfortune is to seek informal work in Saudi Arabia through irregular entry. However tragic migrant deaths are along the Mexican/US border, in the Mediterranean from overloaded unseaworthy boats or at Europe’s eastern land borders, what is happening on the Yemen /Saudi border is singularly egregious, extreme and deliberate. These are not deaths by misadventure but by targeted execution.

This situation needs more international attention and media coverage. It needs in-depth and independent investigations in order to collect more evidence and ultimately hold the perpetrators accountable. It needs a stronger, more outspoken and collective focus on humanitarian assistance and support to migrants along the ‘Eastern route’ by the Ethiopian government concerned for its own citizens, as well as the humanitarian community and donor states – as committed by aid officials at the March 2023 Yemen Senior Officials Meeting in Brussels. Finally, it needs, all possible diplomatic pressure put on Saudi Arabia to immediately end these shameful and outrageous practices.