The Saudi border forces conducting mass killings at the border with Yemen had received training from Germany and the US with the latter failing to react publicly to reports of the abuse and EU not backing independent investigation.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) released on 21 August the shocking report “They Fired on Us Like Rain” revealing mass killings of Ethiopian migrants at the Yemen-Saudi border. The organisation described systematic abuse potentially amounting to crimes against humanity, stating: “Saudi border guards have killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023. Saudi officials are killing hundreds of women and children out of view of the rest of the world while they spend billions on sports-washing to try to improve their image. Saudi Arabia should immediately and urgently revoke any policy to use lethal force on migrants and asylum seekers. Concerned countries should press for accountability and the UN should investigate”. According to Sam Dubberley, the head of HRW’s Digital Investigations Lab: “We show how the pattern of abuses has changed from an apparent practice of occasional shootings to widespread and systematic killings” adding: “Eyewitnesses told us in detail about uniforms, large guns and the use of trucks, which points in the direction of the Saudi National Border Guard”. The HRW report follows earlier allegations by experts commissioned by the UN Human Rights Council addressing a letter to the Saudi government in October 2022, stating: “we express our utmost concern about what appears to be a systematic pattern of large-scale, indiscriminate cross-border killings, using artillery shelling and small arms fired by Saudi security forces against migrants, including refugees and asylum seekers, and victims of trafficking. According to these allegations between 1 January and 30 April 2022 up to 430 such individuals were killed and 650 injured, among them children, women and girls”. In July 2023, the Mixed Migration Centre, published an article pointing out how: “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”.
In reaction to the latest report by HRW, the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated: “The Government of Ethiopia will promptly investigate the incident in tandem with the Saudi authorities,” adding: “At this critical juncture, it is highly advised to exercise utmost restraint from making unnecessary speculations until (the) investigation is complete,” further emphasising the “excellent longstanding relations” between the two governments. The EU is expressing similar ambivalence and reportedly “suggested it won’t support a possible independent UN-backed inquiry into the alleged mass killings”. According to Nabila Massrali, spokesperson from the EU’s foreign policy branch the union prefer to raise the allegations directly with Saudi Arabia and the Houthi authorities in Yemen. Nadia Hardman, author of the HRW report said: “It would be devastating, honestly, if the global attention isn’t matched with an institutional response”, adding: “We need an independent investigation to really assess the abuses and the killings”. Meanwhile, the Saudi regime denies and deflects the reports of mass killings defining them as “unfounded and based on unreliable sources”. Further, the regime “denounced the raising of false accusations by some organisations about the Kingdom and the publication and promotion of politicised and misleading reports”.
German federal police service as well as the US military have reportedly been involved in training Saudi border forces implicated in the reported mass killings. The training of Saudi border forces by the German Federal Police between 2009 and well into 2020 was briefly interrupted following the killing of Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 in Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Türkiye and saw controversy in 2015 after the Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and a ten-year prison sentence. Following the HRW report, German Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock called on the Saudi Arabian government for a response emphasizing the interest of ties between the two countries. Without offering a reason for the ending of the funding, a US official told media: “The US army Security Assistance Command provided border guards training, which had been funded for a period from 2015-2023, with the funding period ending in July of this year”. The training agreement stipulated that the US was required to monitor the use of the training that was to be used only to operate defensively, in protection of the border forces and their sites from attack. However, the deadly targeting of migrants has occurred despite the fact, as revealed to the Guardian, that Saudi Arabia “employs extensive and centrally monitored electronic surveillance of the border area meaning it should be able to distinguish groups of trafficked civilians from those involved in armed incursions from Yemen or drug smuggling”. According to a New York Times investigation: “The United States was told last year that Saudi security forces were shooting, shelling and abusing groups of migrants, but it chose not to raise the issue publicly”. Despite receiving reports in the fall of 2022 and more detailed information in December of the same year: “In the months since, American officials have not publicly criticized the Saudis’ conduct, although State Department officials said this past week, following a published report of the killings, that U.S. diplomats have raised the issue with their Saudi counterparts and asked them to investigate. It remains unclear whether those discussions have affected Saudi actions”.
Around 750,000 Ethiopian migrant workers reside in Saudi Arabia. While the majority have arrived under bilateral agreements, people without resources and papers attempt to cross via the unofficial land route through Yemen. Ulf Terlinden, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s office in Nairobi, outlined the push factors for Ethiopians facing “the second highest inflation rate in all of Africa in 2022, at over 30%”, continuing: “Add to that the drought throughout the region, political instability and the effects of the war in the Tigray region”. According to the German expert: “There are so many reasons why more and more people in Ethiopia are feeling compelled to leave their homes as they fear for their personal safety or because they simply no longer see any prospects”.