Saudi Border Guards Accused of Killings and Assaults on Migrant Workers
An international report has revealed that large numbers of migrant workers are systematically being killed and sexually assaulted by Saudi security officials at the Yemen-Saudi border. According to the report published today by the Mixed Migration Center, an international network conducting research and analysis on migration, Ethiopian migrants have been targeted by snipers and mortar shells, with a mass grave containing nearly 10,000 Ethiopian migrant bodies allegedly killed by Saudi forces discovered, as the stench of rotting corpses permeates the border with Yemen.
The report highlights that the Yemen-Saudi border has become particularly dangerous in recent years, with around 430 recorded killings and 650 injuries between January 1 and April 30, 2022. Citing a complaint submitted by a number of United Nations special rapporteurs and working groups in early October, the report claims that Saudi forces have adopted a policy of excessive use of firearms to prevent and deter migrants from crossing the Yemen-Saudi border, with individuals and larger groups of migrants targeted by snipers and mortar shells, according to eyewitnesses.
There are also allegations of migrants being shot after being apprehended within Saudi territory. The complaint includes information on a secret graveyard in northern Yemen, near the Saudi border, containing up to 10,000 migrant bodies. The United Nations report adds that if caught, migrants are often subjected to torture, such as being shot in the leg to determine the distance a bullet will travel, or asked whether they prefer being shot in the hand or the leg. Moreover, reports claim that girls as young as 13 have been raped by Saudi security forces and forced to return across the border to Yemen without their clothes.
Independent interviews conducted by the Mixed Migration Center with survivors reveal similar accounts of widespread corpses and the pervasive smell of rotting bodies in the border region. On the border itself, local Yemenis in the area report seeing piles of exposed bodies left for extended periods, often placed in shallow graves where possible.
“I was there for three months. Brokers ordered us to go to the border whenever there were migrants injured from trying to cross the Saudi border. We would pull them out and take them to the hospital in Saada town. If they were killed by the Saudi border guards’ attack, we would pull their bodies out and bury them around the border. This was our daily duty for three months.” (21-year-old Ethiopian returnee)
“The shooting started when we reached the bottom of the mountain. The weapon that was fired was high. The Saudi police were wearing green uniforms with symbols. While the Saudi police were shooting at us, many migrants were running either backward or forward and became victims, but I was traveling like a snake after hearing a gunshot from the Saudi police and running from the bullets. This helped me survive. Six ambulances came and collected the dead. Other police took the survivors in other cars. However, the Saudi police still leave the bodies of many migrants.” (33-year-old Ethiopian returnee)
“The pungent smell of corpses bothered us during our attempts to cross the border.” (22-year-old Ethiopian returnee)
While the United Nations complaint only covers part of 2022, estimates based on additional information received by the Mixed Migration Center suggest that at least 794 people were killed and 1,703 injured due to Saudi violations against migrants on Yemen’s northern border throughout 2022. The center believes the actual number could be much higher due to reports of unofficial burials in remote areas and accounts of bodies left unburied being consumed by wild dogs. One returning migrant described a choke-point-like area along the border, where he claimed there were many unburied dead migrants.
The report highlights the alarming nature and the far-reaching scope of the violence and violations against migrants on this route, which has resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds. The state violence against migrants has barely received any international attention, let alone any tangible action to hold the perpetrators accountable.
The report, which was released this week, highlights the harrowing testimonies of migrants who have attempted to cross the border, with many describing how Saudi security forces launch artillery shelling and sniper fire at them, resulting in mass killings and injuries.
One 35-year-old Ethiopian returnee explained how “explosives harm migrants, and some die in the valley as a result of their injuries because no one pulls them to Yemen. Exhausted from their previous journeys and mistreatment, migrants are unable to endure the difficulty of traveling on the mountain, and as a result, they fall [into the valley]; they die there.”
The report also highlights that between January and April 2023, at least 75 migrants were reportedly killed by Saudi border officials, and 226 were injured. The targeted nature of the killings, their scope, and the fact that the perpetrators operate under state authority make this border crossing exceptionally deadly.
Despite the United Nations report on the issue, there has been a severe lack of international outrage. The report notes that, besides Human Rights Watch, which issued a brief message in December 2022, and some coverage in November 2022 in Arabic media, there has been no significant international media coverage, public condemnation, or action to hold the perpetrators accountable.
This situation is in stark contrast to the global outrage that followed the investigation published in December 2022, which showed how Bulgarian border guards used live ammunition and fired at a 19-year-old Syrian asylum seeker.
The Mixed Migration Center report calls for immediate action to address the human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed on the Saudi-Yemeni border. The report highlights the need for international condemnation, accountability, and for the Saudi government to stop the violence and violations against migrants.
According to the report, the world may have become desensitized to stories of mistreatment of migrants, as they seem to receive less attention when the destination is not Europe, and the route is far from the global north. The perpetrators responsible for these mass killings of migrants may be working to benefit a highly important country on the geopolitical stage, which makes it difficult to hold them accountable. However, evidence suggests that a sovereign member of the United Nations is using or authorizing deadly and brutal tactics to execute and injure hundreds of migrants who are only seeking informal work in Saudi Arabia through illegal entry.
Despite the tragic deaths of migrants along the Mexican/American border, on overcrowded and unseaworthy boats in the Mediterranean, or on the Eastern land borders of Europe, what is happening on the Saudi-Yemeni border is uniquely extreme and deliberate. These are not deaths resulting from failed attempts at adventure, but from targeted executions.
The report highlights the need for immediate international action to address the human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed on the Saudi-Yemeni border. The report also points out the need for accountability and an end to the violence and violations against migrants.