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Saudi guards killed hundreds of migrants crossing border from Yemen, rights group says

Saudi border guards killed “hundreds” of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers crossing the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023, Human Rights Watch alleged in a report released Monday.

The organization said it interviewed 42 Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers and analyzed over 350 videos and photographs posted to social media, as well as satellite imagery. Together, HRW said it showed evidence of dead and wounded along the migrant trail, in camps and medical facilities, as well as burial sites and “expanding Saudi border security infrastructure.”

Videos shared on TikTok and Facebook purport to show dead bodies along the migrant trail near the Yemen-Saudi border, as well as migrants with wounds consistent with injuries from explosive blasts or gunshots, according to a forensic pathologist. HRW claimed to have sourced and verified the videos.

Several videos purportedly recorded near an informal migrant camp appear to show Saudi border guard posts, and newly constructed fences next to one. HRW further said that satellite imagery obtained by the nonprofit also indicated growing graveyards nearby.

“Saudi border guards have used explosive weapons indiscriminately 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,” HRW said in their report, adding that the violence appeared to be ongoing.

For decades, Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers have attempted to travel across the “Eastern Route” – a dangerous journey from the Horn of Africa, across the Gulf of Aden, into Yemen and eventually Saudi Arabia, HRW said.

A cessation of hostilities agreement signed in November 2022 between warring parties in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region ended a conflict that left tens of thousands dead and displaced millions. But despite a reduction in abuses, human rights groups say violence has continued, and some migrants HRW interviewed said they had fled because of the recent conflict. Violence and insecurity have also persisted in other parts of the country, including in the Amhara and Oromia regions, forcing civilians to flee.

Along the route, migrants board overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels from Djibouti into Houthi-controlled Yemeni territory, where they’re divided by smugglers according to their Ethiopian ethnicity for language purposes and kept in camps in Saada, in northern Yemen, close to the Saudi border, holding tens of thousands of other migrants waiting to be smuggled into the country, HRW said.

The migrants described beatings, sexual assault and ransom by the smugglers. Those who could not pay the smugglers were taken to cramped Houthi-run detention centers, where they say they were abused and extorted, HRW reported.

Yemen has been embroiled in a civil war since 2014, when Houthi forces stormed the capital Sanaa and toppled the internationally recognized and Saudi-backed government. It spiraled into a wider war in 2015 when a Saudi-led coalition intervened in an attempt to beat back the Houthis.

The coalition, supported by the United States, has faced withering criticism – including from Human Rights Watch – for bombing civilian targets in Yemen. Eight years later, the coalition has been unable to dislodge the rebels, whom the Saudi military claims have fired over 1,000 rockets and drones toward Saudi cities in retaliation, according to Reuters.

The war has sparked one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, leaving thousands dead and pushing parts of the country into famine due to a Saudi blockade on Houthi-held ports.

The new HRW report says smugglers move 200 migrants at a time from Yemen into Saudi Arabia, with those unable to pay the smuggler fee in full often forced to lead the group. The migrants leading the group “consequently were the most likely to be injured or killed by explosive weapons attacks or shootings,” HRW said.

The organization 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.

Ten people interviewed said 11 border crossing attempts involving more than 1,200 migrants resulted in at least 655 deaths. Another nine attempts resulted in deaths, according to migrants interviewed, who said they were too busy fleeing or traumatized to estimate the toll, but estimated the toll based on those who returned to the camps. One interviewee told HRW that “from 150, only 7 people survived that day … there were remains of people everywhere, scattered everywhere.”

HRW said it interviewed survivors who were asked by Saudi border guards which limb they preferred to be shot, before shooting them at close range.

“They shot at our legs … the guards were wearing Saudi military uniform, multiple colors with a mix of green and brown,” one 23-year-old migrant told HRW. “Many people were shot in different parts of their body. The bullet went through my mouth and out through my neck. I was shot brutally.”

The human rights organization also noted that the Iran-backed Houthi militant group in Yemen have played a “significant role” in perpetrating abuses against migrants along the migration route, including facilitating access to the border for smugglers and migrants, “detaining and extorting migrants” and “torturing, arbitrary detention, and trafficking.”

Among their recommendations, HRW 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.”

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