I have been documenting abuses at international borders for more than three decades.
Just last year, I interviewed and reported on Afghan asylum seekers whom Greek border guards had stripped naked in the dead of winter and forced into the river bordering Turkey.
I have stood on the docks at Port-au-Prince where U.S. Coast Guard personnel forcibly disembarked Haitians into the arms of their persecutors. I have taken hundreds of witness and victim accounts of border guard extortion, beatings and summary expulsions in Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
I thought I could no longer be shocked and horrified by such accounts, but I was wrong.
For months, if not longer, Saudi border guards have been systematically shooting and shelling Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross from Yemen along the remote, inaccessible border that divides the two countries. These migrants include large numbers of women and children. They are unarmed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been killed.
Videos and photographs detail the severity of these attacks. They show piles of bodies stacked in containers at a hospital in Yemen; flesh torn from bullets, shrapnel and explosive force; limbs amputated; life brutally ended and forever altered, all documented on camera.
Both Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump flew to Saudi Arabia to hobnob with its leaders. For U.S. presidents of whatever stripe, human rights seem to take a back seat to economic and security interests when it comes to Saudi Arabia. At what point will the flow of blood be of comparable concern to the flow of oil?
The number of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers killed at this border will never be known. Survivor accounts paint a picture of horrific killing fields.
“From 150 [in my group], only seven people survived that day,” said one. “There were remains of people everywhere, scattered everywhere.”
Another survivor went to the Saudi border to collect the remains of a girl from his village. “Her body was piled up on top of 20 bodies,” he said.
Saudi border guards are using explosive weapons indiscriminately and shooting people at close range. In some instances, they reportedly first asked their victims where on their body they preferred to be shot, before shooting them.
Between January and June, Human Rights Watch interviewed by telephone 38 Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who had tried to cross the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia between March 2022 and June of this year, as well as four friends and relatives of those who tried to cross.
Human Rights Watch also analyzed over 350 videos and photographs posted to social media or gathered from other sources, and several hundred square kilometers of satellite imagery. These show dead and wounded migrants on the trails, in camps and in medical facilities, how burial sites near the migrant camps grew in size, the expanding Saudi border security infrastructure, and the routes currently used by the migrants to attempt border crossings.
The border killings are widespread and systematic. If committed as part of a Saudi government policy to murder migrants, these killings would be a crime against humanity.
Many Americans are aware of the 2018 brutal murder and dismembering of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But because these shootings are taking place in such a remote area and the victims have few powerful defenders, these mass killings on the border with Yemen have been almost entirely unreported.
The remainder of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is abysmal. Saudi authorities continue to target, arbitrarily detain, torture and ill-treat political dissidents, human rights activists, women’s rights leaders, academics and religious leaders. Saudi courts rely on torture-tainted confessions as the sole basis for convictions.
On one day alone, March 12, 2022, Saudi Arabia executed 81 people, 41 of whom were from the Shia Muslim minority, who have long suffered systemic discrimination. And Saudi Arabia continues to obstruct efforts for justice in Yemen, where airstrikes by the coalition it leads have killed and wounded thousands of civilians since 2015.
I don’t for a moment want to divert attention from pushbacks at other borders, including the U.S. border with Mexico. But the violence against unarmed migrants by Saudi Arabia is of an order above and beyond anything I have seen before. It demands our attention and must be prioritized in any dealings with the Saudi government. A robust and unambiguous response is imperative.
Bill Frelick is the refugee and migrant rights director at Human Rights Watch.
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