'Scenes of absolute horror': Saudi border guards guilty of mass killings of migrants, says HRW

FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 file photo, Ethiopian Zeynu Abebe, 19, sits in between two others after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the in airport Addis Ababa
FILE - In this Friday, Dec. 22, 2017 file photo, Ethiopian Zeynu Abebe, 19, sits in between two others after being deported from Saudi Arabia, at the in airport Addis Ababa Copyright AP
By Euronews
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Hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the border were killed by Saudi guards between March 2022 and June 2023.


“I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined.” Last February, 14-year-old Hamdiya was trying to cross the Yemen-Saudi border with a group of 60 people when she heard the gunfire.

“I saw 30 people killed on the spot.”

After witnessing the scene, Hamdiya was in shock. “I don’t know what happened after that,” she said. “I could feel people sleeping around me. Then I realised they were actually dead bodies.”

Her testimony is part of Human Rights Watch's (HRW) latest report alleging mass killings of migrants at the Yemen-Saudi border by Saudi border guards. The investigation suggests that systematic abuses against Ethiopians may amount to crimes against humanity.

Hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers crossing the border were killed between March 2022 and June 2023.

Hamdiya can now tell her story from the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, where she arrived with the help of other migrants. Although she survived the attack, she says she is psychologically scarred.

“I can’t sleep now. During the night I am so scared. I prefer people to stay awake and talk to me.”

Nariman El-Mofty/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.
In this July 26, 2019 file photo, Ethiopian migrants disembark from a boat onto the shores of Ras al-Ara, Lahj, Yemen, determined to reach Saudi Arabia.Nariman El-Mofty/Copyright 2019 The AP. All rights reserved.

Migrants targeted with explosives

Other ten people interviewed by HRW estimated that from 11 attempted crossings with a total of 1,278 migrants, they had seen at least 655 deaths.

"There are definitely many more deaths because it's impossible to get an accurate figure. It's an inaccessible area and we are interviewing people who have just fled a scene of absolute horror, they're devastated," Nadia Hardman, a researcher in the refugee and migrant rights division at HRW, told Euronews.

One of the survivors explained that from his group of more than170 people, 90 were killed: “Some returned to that place to pick up the dead bodies.”

The report states that Saudi border guards have used “explosive weapons” to kill many migrants at close range, including women and children.

“HRW has been documenting killings since 2014, but they were irregular and infrequent. When we started investigating, we didn’t expect this to be so gore,” Hardman said.

"We didn't expect to say that (the killings) are widespread and systematic and could amount to a crime against humanity because the scale is incredible," she added.

According to HRW’s findings, in a number of situations, Saudi border guards asked migrants which part of their body to shoot, and then shot them at a close range. They also fired explosive weapons at migrants trying to flee back to Yemen.

All this while Saudi Arabia has “invested heavily in deflecting attention from its abysmal human rights record at home and abroad”, spending billions of dollars on major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events.

Graphic Human Rights Watch
Map of the migration route from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia through Yemen.Graphic Human Rights Watch

A lethal route

The Somalia-Yemen-Saudi Arabia route is one of the most dangerous in the world. Many Ethiopians try to cross the Somali border and then set sail for Yemen. From there, they cross into Saudi Arabia in search of a better life.

The devastating war in Ethiopia's Tigray region, coupled with socio-economic reasons, drive hundreds of thousands of people to take this route, where 90% of migrants are Ethiopian.

It is estimated that approximately 750,000 of them live and work in Saudi Arabia.


“Ethiopians don’t have much choice. There’s a smuggling and trafficking network that is quite polished and there’s the promise of job opportunities in Saudi Arabia. Those job opportunities do exist,” said Hardman.

"It's always been understood that this is an extremely dangerous route, but I don't think people are aware of the level of brutality and the extent of the deaths," she added.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, only 30% of those trying to find work in Saudi Arabia are aware that Yemen - the country they must cross - is in its sixth year of conflict.

This leads to abuses not only by the Saudi border police, but also by the Houthi armed group in Yemen, who have detained migrants in poor conditions and subjected them to torture.

Houthi forces would often “extort bribes” from the migrants "abusing people until they could pay an exit fee”.

Hani Mohammed/AP
Ethiopian migrants wait to be evacuated at departure center in the western Yemeni town of Haradh, on the border with Saudi Arabia and Yemen.Hani Mohammed/AP

‘Voices pleading not to leave them’

Of the 42 people interviewed by HRW who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border, all described scenes of horror.

Seriously injured, mutilated or already dead women, men and children littered the mountainous landscape.

“First I was eating with people and then they were dying,” said one of the testimonies collected by HWR. “There are some people who you cannot identify because their bodies are thrown everywhere. Some people were torn in half.”

The organisation has gathered visual evidence, which it has cross-checked with members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group of the International Rehabilitation Council for Victims of Torture, to corroborate the migrants' accounts.

One of the things Hardman will not forget is the migrants' sense of guilt.


“If they survived the attack, they fled. But there were people dying and they knew they couldn’t save them. Many migrants told me they could still remember all of the voices of the people pleading them not to leave them.”

Euronews contacted the Saudi Arabian government for comment.

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