Migrants and refugees targeted everywhere: this time, Saudi Arabia

A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals horrific realities of a migrant route from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, from one of the poorest regions of the world to one of the most prosperous – and unwelcoming.

‘They fired on us like rain’ – Human Rights Watch starts the story. But it is not a war chronicle, a story of struggle between two armed sides.

In Ethiopia, nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty or extreme poverty, with additional devastation brought by the civil war in the Tigray region in recent years.

Many are trying to seek a better life in prosperous Saudi Arabia, crossing the border into Eritrea, then the Aden Gulf, Yemen – and finally the mountainous border between two Arab countries.

It’s a migration route that has been operating for years and is known to be deadly risky. It is also known that Saudi Arabia’s migration policy is not the one of open doors. Nevertheless, the desperate people of Ethiopia know that they can also lose their lives at home. Everything they expect if staying home is further uncertain existence, without basic amenities, under constant risk of violence. They decide it is worth trying to contact the smugglers and take the risk. After all, there are more than 750,000 Ethiopian nationals in Saudi Arabia right now – and most of them came through the mountains.

Having collected 38 accounts of Ethiopian migrants who tried to cross into Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory and more stories of migrants’ relatives or friends, HRW came to a conclusion that Saudi border guards are determined to do anything not to let this number grow. In short: they shoot at those who come. The organization collected several hundred videos and photos showing injured and killed Ethiopians, and has no doubts that there is more.

But the tragedy starts even before.

Smugglers operating along the route charge migrants hefty fees for “safe passage.” Beating up a migrant or refusing to guide him/her further to get extra money from her family who is waiting for her in Saudi Arabia or who has remained in the country is also a common practice. The smugglers operate with the acquiescence and cooperation of the Houthi guerrillas, who control parts of Yemen . In fact, this armed group controls the whole ‘camps’ where migrants are stuck, waiting till they are taken to the border mountains in groups of 200 or sometimes less.

At the border, there is no international law, no asylum requests, HRW proves. When Saudi border guards spot the migrants, they shot at them with small arms and machine guns. They also throw grenades.

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.

– a 14-year-old migrant named Handiya recalled. There are thousands of underage refugees like her. Some have been separated from their parents by smugglers, others have lost their parents just on the trail and are continuing alone – voluntarily or not.

Those who do not cross the border under fire, go back to the smugglers’ camp and then come again to the border. They still cherish a hope that the guards might not detect the group, despite all the modern equipment used to monitor the border.

We were there for three months, because we were trying to cross all this time. We would try and cross and then the border guards would push us back and then we would try and again and we would be pushed back, and this happened for 3 months

– said a 20-year-old Hadiya. She made her last attempt to cross the border in October 2022. She witnessed the death of more than 20 people walking together with her. Another HRW interlocutor recounted that out of the 150-member group in which he walked, seven migrants survived.

All of the accounts cover the period between May 2022 and June 2023. It is virtually certain that the situation has not changed since then.

The HRW report leaves no doubt: Saudi soldiers shot at men, women and children deliberately, often at close range. They must be aware that the shots would prove fatal or that the victim would suffer severe wounds that would be extremely difficult or impossible to treat in war-ravaged Yemen.

People who have not paid the smugglers the full amount demanded are pushed to the front of the group, meaning that they are the ones who are more likely to die at the hands of Saudi guards. Smugglers provide assistance to injured migrants – many of them were taken back to the camps, and even if they didn’t want to try to enter Saudi Arabia again, their relatives had to pay for their release. Other victims were taken from the border area by Saudi border guards and taken to detention centers in Saudi Arabia.

A particularly shocking story was told by a woman who crossed the border, ended up in one of such centres and then was pushed back to Yemen. The group of migrants she was in was first forced to cross the Yemeni border, and then brutally attacked when they were making no attempt at going back.

The Saudis picked us up from the detention center in Daer and put us in a minibus going back to the Yemen border. When they released us, they created a kind of chaos; they screamed at us to “get out of the car and get away.” They trapped us into the same lane, they didn’t want us to spread out in case we tried to go back to Saudi I think, and this is when they started to fire mortars – to keep us into the mountain line, they fired the mortar from left and right. When we were one kilometer away, the border guards could see us. We were resting together after running a lot…and that’s when they fired mortars on our group. Directly at us. There were 20 in our group and only ten survived. Some of the mortars hit the rocks and then the [fragments of the] rock hit us…

Reports of violence against migrants were presented as early as October 2022. UN Special Envoy for Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions. His report included information on the deaths of 430 migrants and more than 16 situations in which Saudi border guards fired on desperate newcomes. At the time, Saudi Arabia dismissed all accusations as fundamentally false. It is now reacting similarly to the Human Rights Watch report.

– In recent years, Saudi Arabia has invested heavily in deflecting attention from its abysmal human rights record at home and abroad, spending billions of dollars to host major entertainment, cultural, and sporting events – authors of the report note. Their whole work is a call not to forget this abysmal record, when seeing ads promoting tourism in Saudi Arabia or finding out that a football star has just signed a contract with a local club. One can only hope that the call would be heard by some of the readers. Unfortunately, practice shows that horrific crimes committed in a faraway region often fail to attract attention and make people think.

If the shooting of migrants is carried out according to orders/guidelines that the country’s authorities have approved, it is a crime against humanity, HRW says.

For sure, Saudi Arabia now refuses that any orders like this might exist, and claims that the entire work by human rights defenders is based on biased sources. However, during the war with its southern Yemeni neighbor, Saudi Arabia did not hesitate to bomb street bazaars, shell wedding and funeral processions, and target towns where civilians were killed. No one was held accountable for these acts. Every single time, the Saudis claimed to have committed a mistake or refused to admit that anything happened at all. All the more reason for Ar-Riyadh to assume that other than words of condemnation from the UN, it will bear no responsibility for violently driving away migrants from one of the world’s poorest countries.

Just like no responsibility is being born by the European Union for the mistaken policies of making deals with non-democratic neighbours like Tunisia, deals aimed at forceful stopping of migration instead of dealing with reasons for which people leave their homes and risk to die on a way to a better life. No global issues, political, social or environmental, are being properly addressed – instead, the wealthier countries lock up the borders and increase spending on pushing the newcomers back. Meanwhile, the societies are made to believe that higher walls, more patrolling and more border deaths would allow us to live calmly, without the view of these unhappy ones who have nothing to lose. And who, precisely because of that, will keep coming.

The entire Human Rights Watch report is available here.

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