25 September 2023 in Home, Human Rights


According to a Human Rights Watch report of 21 August 2023, ‘They Fired on Us Like Rain’, a massacre of migrants trying to enter Saudi territory is taking place on the Yemen-Saudi border by border guards[1] .

The migrants are mostly Ethiopians, but also Somalis and Eritreans. The Ethiopian migrants are economic migrants but also asylum seekers fleeing the brutal civil war that is bloodying the country. They arrive in Djibouti, from there cross the Gulf of Aden and disembark from dilapidated, overcrowded and underfed boats. The Yemeni traffickers, in agreement with the Houthi troops – one of the warring factions in the war that started in 2014[2] – transfer the migrants to the governorate of Saada, where they are separated according to their ethnicity: the Tigrayans are housed in the Al Raqw camp, while the Oromo in the Al Thabit camp. Here, migrants are subjected to harassment and violence of all kinds; traffickers often demand extra money compared to what was agreed and lock up in detention centres those who are unwilling or unable to pay.

Saada is an ancient capital in Yemen’s northwest, located over 1800 metres above sea level, which saw the birth of the Houthi movement in 2004 and has since become its stronghold[3] . Houthi militias comb the city’s hospitals looking for migrants injured in their attempt to cross the border and take them to camps run by traffickers. Here tens of thousands of people wait their turn to try to enter Arabia: the traffickers regularly send groups of up to 200 men, women and children, many of them completely alone.

Those unable to pay the travel fare in full are sent to the front of the group, with a huge chance of ending up under Saudi artillery fire: the survey conducted by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in order to monitor the situation in the area reveals a worrying change of strategy by the Saudi government. HRW has been recording since 2014 (the year the conflict in Yemen began) the conditions of migrants crossing the country to land in Saudi Arabia. If in the first years, in the face of violence and harassment, killings of migrants in the area were an occasional occurrence, in the last year and a half border guards have been killing people by the hundreds, shooting at point-blank range or hitting crowds with mortars and explosive weapons thrown from patrol cars.

According to the organisation’s estimates, the first eleven large expedition groups involving a total of 3442 people were organised by the traffickers in the second half of 2021: migrants interviewed report that at least 655 of these died in the attacks. Subsequently, a further nine expeditions involving 1,630 people set off. In this case, the total survivors amount to 281. They are able to provide data on the dead because they often return to the field after the shooting is over to take the bodies away.

Secretly filmed images of troops firing at the border [4]

Of the next four groups that left for the border, the interviewees are unable to provide estimates useful for the investigation. The deaths at the hands of the Saudi border guards could therefore number in the thousands. The sampler of atrocities committed is unfortunately enriched by further elements: people attempting to cross the border in smaller groups are let into Saudi territory under the eye of the military, who then approach and ask the migrants which limb they prefer to be shot in before shooting.

Witnesses describe repeated incidents of beatings using rocks and metal bars; beatings often occur even after the rocket attacks have ended, while some male survivors are forced to rape the women in the group, on pain of immediate death; those who manage to escape are wracked with guilt for not having been able to help their comrades. Once an attack, which can last hours or days, is over, the survivors are often locked up in detention centres on Saudi territory, sometimes for months at a time, with no regard for the conditions. Those who return to the Yemeni camps of Al Thabit and Al Raqw or the nearby village of Al Gar do not receive any medical assistance; only a few make it to hospitals in Saada or Sana’a, thanks to the support of funds collected from their relatives.

There is a complete lack of international bodies to monitor human rights violations, after the Group of Experts mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council was dissolved in 2021 following pressure on the Council from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But in spite of the terrible humanitarian crisis that has plagued the country since 2015, Yemen continues to be one of the busiest transit points along the migration route from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia: in 2022, 73,233 migrant arrivals were recorded, 92% of them Ethiopians arriving from Djibouti and Somalia, almost all of them heading to Saudi Arabia[5] .

The number of migrants is increasing compared to 2020 and 2021, but it is half the numbers reached before the COVID-19 pandemic. The increase in the number of Ethiopian migrants is constant, therefore: smugglers in Djibouti and traffickers in Yemen are facilitating their entry into a country where some 43,000 people in transit are stranded (in dire conditions) in different parts of the country, due to the restrictions on freedom of movement that followed the start of the conflict, with the risk of forced relocation along the various front lines[6] .

The almost insurmountable difficulties that migrants encounter in Yemen come after the dangers of crossing the Horn of Africa: in Djibouti, in May 2023, a minivan with fifty people in it has a road accident, in which three people lose their lives, while the many injured are left on the road by the fleeing local traffickers. The vehicle crashes into a pile of rocks as it travels at high speed along the desert with the aim of reaching the port of Obock, from where boats for Yemen leave, without a hitch.

Gruesome pictures from an improvised checkpoint on the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border line [7]

The point of entry into Djibouti for Ethiopian migrants is the coastal town of Tadjourah, in the north of the country: the Tadjourah-Obock section is part of the ‘Eastern Route’, the road from the Horn of Africa to the dream, Arabia[8] . In Djibouti, migrants intercepted by the police are rescued by doctors from the International Organisation for Migration and the local Ethiopian community association; some of them receive assistance to return home, those who have the strength continue their journey[9] .

Following an agreement between the Ethiopian and Saudi Arabian governments, the forced repatriation of about 100,000 Ethiopian nationals began in April 2022. They found themselves in Addis Ababa after facing terrible adventures to get to Arabia[10] . After the Human Rights Watch report on the systematic killings on the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border, the Ethiopian government announced in late August 2023 that it would launch a joint investigation with Ryiadh into the incident. The United States, historically close to Arabia, calls for a thorough investigation, as does the European Union, which expresses concern over the HRW report, shared by UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric.

This was the reaction of the Western political and diplomatic world to what had allegedly happened, although as early as 2022 UN experts reported artillery bombardments and the use of small arms by Saudi border guards, which allegedly caused the deaths of 430 migrants in northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia between January and April 2022[11] . The Houthi militiamen themselves, accused of collaborating with traffickers, point to the Saudi guards as being responsible for the killings of migrants and Yemeni citizens. The Houthi faction, the leader of Yemen’s western region, is supported by Iran and fought by Riyadh, a major player in the Yemeni conflict since 2015[12] .

In 2015, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Sa’ud assumed the position of the country’s Defence Minister, thus overseeing military operations in Yemeni territory. In October 2016, an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition on a crowded funeral procession in Sana’a killed approximately 100 people and injured a further 500: in addition to military personnel and civilian officials, a large number of civilians were present at the procession. This episode follows a series of attacks on schools, markets, hospitals, weddings and private homes in the previous two years, probable war crimes about which impartial and thorough investigations are lacking[13] .

Arab journalist Jamal Khashoggi, barbarously killed (also) for reporting on the massacres of migrants[14]

It was in 2020 that an attempt was made to bury a detailed internal US State Department analysis that Washington could be legally liable for war crimes in the Yemen conflict due to arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates[15] . In 2019, the State Department also allegedly lied to Congress about its ability to monitor coalition attacks: they would know about the movements and use of weapons in the ongoing war, despite having declared otherwise[16] .

These weapons, in the possession of the Saudi Ministry of Defence, could be among those used by border guards to kill Ethiopian migrants from Yemen. Guards who, over the past eight years, have been trained by the US military’s Security Assistance Program (the programme ends in July 2023)[17] . In the case of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and hacked to pieces in the Saudi consulate building in Istanbul in 2018, US intelligence publishes a document in 2021 in which Prince bin Salman’s approval[18] for the journalist’s murder by Saudi officials, led by the vicious Mohammed Dahlan[19] clearly emerges.

In 2019, future US President Joe Biden declared during his election campaign that he would make Saudi Arabia a pariah in the international community due to the crimes committed and the ongoing human rights violations[20] ; in November 2022, the Biden administration supported bin Salman’s request for legal immunity in the context of a lawsuit brought against him by Khashoggi’s partner[21] and the association Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN)[22] , citing the position of Prime Minister of Saudi Arabia, which the prince had recently assumed[23] .

On the Saudi domestic front, the 2017 anti-terrorism law[24] and the measures against cybercrime[25] immediately prove to be effective tools of repression against any form of dissent, undermining the right to due process: Saudi prosecutors can arrest and detain individuals, monitor their communications and financial data, search their property and seize assets without judicial oversight. The Saudi government also tries to infiltrate technology platforms to spy on its subjects: in December 2022, Ahmad Abouammo, a former Twitter employee, was sentenced to more than three years in prison by the federal district court in California for spying for Saudi Arabia[26] .  Riyadh encourages the population to use the smartphone application called Kollona Amn (translatable as: We are all security) to report any kind of criminal activity, including attacks, defamation and ‘misuse’ of social networks.

It would have been Kollona Amn[27] that led to the arrest, in January 2021, of Salma al-Shehab, a final year doctoral student at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Leeds and mother of two children[28] . The woman, guilty of having written a tweet vaguely critical of an infrastructure project in the kingdom, was sentenced in first instance to six years, which after the appeal process, requested by the woman’s lawyers, became thirty-four, with the addition of a further thirty-four years of a ban on expatriation, to be served once the prison sentence is over[29] .

Student Salma al-Shehab sentenced to 34 years in prison for a comment critical of the government[30]

At the same time, Biden is in Saudi Arabia to ask bin Salman in vain for support in lowering the price of fuel, which is soaring even in the United States[31] . No criticism and no mention of the al-Shebab affair by the US administration, except for a statement by the State Department, which says it is studying the case[32] . In July 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron meets the Saudi Crown Prince at the Elysée Palace to discuss energy supplies: here too, as in the meeting with Biden, the request is to increase oil production to counter the effects of the cut in gas supplies to Europe decided by Russia after the start of the conflict with Ukraine[33] . On this occasion, the World Organisation Against Torture and other humanitarian organisations send a joint letter to the French president, accusing him of helping, by meeting bin Salman, to conceal the atrocities committed by the Riyadh regime[34] .

Macron is, in December 2021, the first Western leader to enter into a relationship with bin Salman since Khashoggi’s murder; the official reasons for the talks, centred on the prospects of détente with Iran and the fight against Islamist fundamentalism in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa, cannot obscure the fact that France is one of Saudi Arabia’s largest arms suppliers[35] . Macron and bin Salman will meet again in June 2023. At the centre of the summit, in addition to regional security issues, is the prince’s increasingly explicit promotion of Saudi Arabia as an emerging player on the international scene, a promoter of activities aimed at boosting its prestige, which is in truth rather tarnished: the main ones being Riyadh’s candidature for Expo 2030, but also Vision 2030, the Saudi development strategy for the post-oil era[36] , of which the futuristic city in the desert (NEOM[37] ) could be one of the cornerstones, if it were not a project full of drawbacks, further human rights violations and enormous implementation problems[38] .

Bin Salman knows that he is needed by a West in need of certainty about the availability of oil in the short and medium term, so he tries to guarantee his country a solid future even after the end of the oil era by unhesitatingly promoting a dual-track political action: savage repression of dissidence and civil rights on the one hand, grandiose projects and the will to impose himself on the world on the other, also through the ever-increasing influence of the local sovereign investment fund, the Public Investment Fund (PIF). Initiatives such as the Vision 2030 project could lead the PIF to become the richest sovereign wealth fund in the world[39] . The fund now owns shares in several US companies including Citi Bank, Boeing, Facebook[40] , Disney, Starbucks[41] and British companies such as BP[42] .

In sports, the PIF makes its entry by purchasing the English team Newcastle United[43] in 2021, before becoming the owner of the four most important teams in the Saudi national football league, the Saudi Pro League[44] . By tying himself inseparably to the fates of Western economies, bin Salman is assured of being able to act almost undisturbed in the diligent work of perpetually preserving his domestic power, with the governments of the ‘developed’ world increasingly turning a deaf ear to the appeals of human rights groups: in October 2021, the UN Human Rights Council rejected the resolution to renew the mandate for the Group of Eminent Experts (GEE)[45] , an independent body called to investigate human rights violations in the Yemen conflict. The decision comes, as already described, following an aggressive lobbying campaign by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates[46] .

This is yet another situation in which no one seems to be able to do anything. The international tension is such that nothing is taboo anymore. The general failure of the original mission of the United Nations is perhaps one of the greatest catastrophes of our time, not least because it is taking place in the total silence of governments and with public opinion stressed by the various wars, which are becoming ever more terrible and ever closer. An analysis that does little to help those thousands of human beings who, like ants, go daily to slaughter.


[1] https://www.hrw.org/report/2023/08/21/they-fired-us-rain/saudi-arabian-mass-killings-ethiopian-migrants-yemen-saudi

[2] https://theglobalpitch.eu/2021/11/12/socotra-the-last-wonderful-enchanted-island/

[3] https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190318-yemen-army-controls-areas-in-houthi-stronghold-of-saada/

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f90vwqCYU1c

[5] International Organisation for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix: YEMEN FLOW MONITORING REGISTRY

Non-Yemeni Migrant Arrivals and Yemeni Migrant Returns to Yemen in 2022, p.1-2

[6] International Organisation for Migration’s Displacement Tracking Matrix: YEMEN FLOW MONITORING REGISTRY

Non-Yemeni Migrant Arrivals and Yemeni Migrant Returns to Yemen in 2022, p.2

[7] https://news.sky.com/story/saudi-arabia-border-guards-likely-killed-hundreds-of-unarmed-migrants-crossing-from-yemen-in-recent-years-report-claims-12944443

[8] https://storyteller.iom.int/stories/when-tragedy-strikes-migration-journey-ends-deadly-ethiopians-djibouti

[9] https://storyteller.iom.int/stories/when-tragedy-strikes-migration-journey-ends-deadly-ethiopians-djibouti

[10] https://www.iom.int/news/funding-needed-assist-over-100000-ethiopian-migrants-returning-kingdom-saudi-arabia

[11] https://www.lemonde.fr/en/le-monde-africa/article/2023/08/22/ethiopia-announces-probe-into-alleged-migrant-killings-in-tandem-with-saudi-arabia_6103345_124.html

[12] https://www.africanews.com/2023/08/21/hrw-accuses-saudi-border-guards-of-killing-hundreds-of-ethiopian-migrants/

[13] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/13/yemen-saudi-led-funeral-attack-apparent-war-crime

[14] https://time.com/5692863/jamal-khashoggi-murder-anniversary/

[15] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/14/us/politics/us-war-crimes-yemen-saudi-arabia.html

[16] https://www.warren.senate.gov/oversight/letters/senator-warren-gets-answers-from-centcom-commander-about-yemen-operations

[17] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/2023/08/31/saudi-yemen-migrants-us/

[18] https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/assessments/Assessment-Saudi-Gov-Role-in-JK-Death-20210226v2.pdf

[19] https://theglobalpitch.eu/2021/11/28/mohammed-dahlan-assassin-for-the-king/#_ftn102

[20] https://theintercept.com/2019/11/21/democratic-debate-joe-biden-saudi-arabia/

[21] https://apnews.com/article/biden-business-lawsuits-journalists-jamal-khashoggi-49f3e4ce88aa21bf2ba603dcbb32277f

[22] https://s3.documentcloud.org/documents/7273439/10-20-20-Cengiz-v-Bin-Salman-Complaint.pdf

[23] https://dawnmena.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/DAWN-53-1.pdf

[24] https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/11/23/saudi-arabia-new-counterterrorism-law-enables-abuse

[25] https://www.hrw.org/news/2014/11/22/saudi-arabia-assault-online-expression

[26][26] https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/security/former-twitter-employee-sentenced-three-years-prison-spying-saudi-arab-rcna61384 ; https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/former-twitter-employees-charged-with-spying-for-saudi-arabia-by-digging-into-the-accounts-of-kingdom-critics/2019/11/06/2e9593da-00a0-11ea-8bab-0fc209e065a8_story.html

[27] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/17/saudi-arabia-snitching-app-jailed-leeds-student-salma-al-shehab

[28] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/08/17/saudi-salma-shehab-activist/

[29] https://alqst.org/en/post/34-years-jail-for-womens-rights-activist-salma-al-shehab

[30] https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2022/08/saudi-arabia-quash-34-year-prison-sentence-for-student-salma-al-shehab/

[31] https://edition.cnn.com/2022/08/03/energy/joe-biden-saudi-trip-opec-analysis/index.html

[32] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/us-studying-34-year-sentence-activist-salma-al-shehab-saudi-arabia-state-dept-2022-08-17/

[33] https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2022/07/28/honors-and-negotiations-for-mohammed-bin-salman-s-paris-visit_5991784_4.html

[34] https://www.omct.org/en/resources/statements/civil-society-urges-president-macron-to-consider-saudi-arabias-horrific-human-rights-record-during-crown-princes-visit-to-paris

[35] https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/khashoggis-shadow-macron-set-saudi-talks-with-crown-prince-2021-12-04/

[36] https://www.lemonde.fr/en/international/article/2023/06/17/mbs-brings-diplomatic-offensive-to-paris-where-interests-don-t-always-align_6033021_4.html

[37] THE SAUDI DREAM OF A CITY IN THE DESERT – The Global Pitch (ibiworld.eu)

[38] https://theglobalpitch.eu/2022/09/18/the-saudi-dream-of-a-city-in-the-desert/

[39] https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/saudi-arabias-pif-hires-banks-advise-esg-ifr-2021-09-07/

[40] https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/16/saudi-sovereign-fund-discloses-stakes-in-citi-boeing-facebook.html

[41] https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/business/business-news/saudi-arabias-investment-fund-adds-disney-facebook-holdings-1294855/

[42] https://www.forbesmiddleeast.com/list/saudis-2020-investments-so-far

[43] https://www.bbc.com/news/newsbeat-58842557

[44] https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-12161201/Saudi-Arabias-PIF-takes-control-four-clubs-including-Cristiano-Ronaldos-Al-Nassr.html

[45] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2021/10/statement-group-experts-yemen-hrc-rejection-resolution-renew-their-mandate?LangID=E&NewsID=27636

[46] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/dec/01/saudi-arabia-yemen-un-human-rights-investigation-incentives-and-therats

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