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Border Massacres: The Saudi Ethiopian Migrant Killings

We know what the regime is like. Starving a country, bombing its hospitals and strafing its schools has been minor fare for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The population of Yemen has found this out to their colossal cost. Add to this the killing of dissident journalists, the enthusiastic employment of capital punishment, and an assortment of other merry brutalities, the House of Saud comes across as a fine specimen of barbaric endeavour. At least, as many of their supporters will say, they like international sporting events, and are willing to throw money at, if not completely purchase, full events.

The killing of hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers attempting to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023 on what is sometimes termed the “Eastern Route” or “Yemeni Route”, adds another notch to the belt of bloodstained achievements for Riyadh. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “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.”

This is all the more galling for the fact that such human travellers must already encounter the dangers of the sea route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, where they transit through to Saudi Arabia.

HRW’s “They Fired Upon Us Like Rain”: Saudi Arabian Mass Killings of Ethiopian Migrants at the Yemen-Saudi Border, is a self-explanatory document of brutal recounting by the human rights organisation, based on the interviews of 42 Ethiopian and asylum seekers. In addition to the interviews, HRW also based its report on findings drawn from an examination of 350 videos and photographs which were posted on social media platforms.

The examination had been conducted by members of the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims. In terms of injuries, IFEG members reached the conclusion that some exhibited “clear patterns consistent with the explosion of munitions with capacity to produce heat and fragmentation”; others had “characteristics consistent with gunshot wounds.”

The 2023 report by the organisation notes some staggering instances of violence against those seeking refuge. “People travelling in groups, from four to five people to up to several hundred describe being attacked by mortar projectiles and other explosive weapons by Saudi border guards once they had crossed the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia.”

The allegations are biting in their cruelty, and bring to mind the fact that killings of this sort have happened before along this notorious route. Saudi border guards, it would seem, went so far as to deploy an array of weapons against such migrants, showing a keen interest targeting Ethiopians. Some 750,000 live and work in the kingdom. Movement through the borders is based on the less than scrupulous calculations and account keeping of smugglers.

Those interviewed in the camp of Saada, base for tens of thousands awaiting their chance to enter Saudi Arabia, note how Saudi border guards tended to patrol the border equipped with “large vehicles” that could have been rocket launchers. “Many migrants,” the report also notes, “said they saw cameras tracking their movements mounted on what looked like ‘street lamps’ on the Saudi side of the border.”

Some of the brutalities are calculatingly perverse. According to HRW, some Saudi border guards dared to discriminate, bothering to first ask “survivors in which limb of their body they preferred to be shot, before shooting them at close range.” Such viciousness sounds boardroom, spreadsheet and planned, which is exactly the sort of matter that should leave a trail right to the Kingdom’s central authorities. But it could also be burgeoning sadism at work, an instant where the powerful can determine what bit of maiming might excite them.

For Ethiopians moving through the precarious route, the circumstances of misery have been frequent. While Riyadh engages in its own complement of viciousness, the Yemeni guards have also had a hand in raping and torturing asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa. Houthi forces have not been averse to targeting immigration centres in Sana’a.

The spectacle recounted by HRW is grotesque. But so are acts involving the turning back of refugee-laden boats or repulsing migrant vessels in the Mediterranean, and conspiring to frustrate the international right to asylum which has been in print since 1951. Little wonder that little mention was made of the killings when they were made aware to envoys from France, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and the European Union, not to mention the Biden administration. (The US State Department insists that it “quickly engaged senior Saudi officials to express our concern” on receiving news on the gruesome details.)

In August 2001, the Australian government, a most eminent practitioner in the field of subverting international refugee law, did not deploy rocket launchers against those seeking asylum off Christmas Island on the Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa. But they did deploy fully armed members of the Special Air Services regiment, an elite force that would go on to, some years later, inflict atrocities upon Afghans in an unwinnable war.

This HRW Report adds another bloodied entry to the chronicles of the Kingdom’s brutality. The organisation claims that the killings continue. The sanguinary story is a telling one for those who continue to conduct relations with Riyadh without murmur or concern, delighted by the riches of its Sovereign Wealth Fund. Its officials know all too well that cash and the expediency of security softens a prickly conscience.


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  1. Harry Lime

    Yeah,but the football finals are upon us,the Spring Racing Carnival beckons,and this summer promises to be a warm one…what’s not to like?
    Meanwhile, back at the ranch,our Labor government,replete with myopic mediocrities, continues the planet killing hypocrisy that is seeing us climb the ladder of detestable nations.See:climate change,whistleblowers,inequality,homelessness,tax dodging,fossil fuel subsidies the continuation of the Pacific Gulagetc.etc.
    Can’t wait for the introduction of the death penalty for protesters.Otherwise, everything is tickety boo.

  2. Canguro

    Unlikely that this dismal but unsurprising account of the ongoing butchery favoured as a first-course recourse to any trifling or otherwise irritating issues facing the Kingdom of Saud will come to the attention of that once-favoured son of Australian sport, the utterly obnoxious Greg Norman – a man who can smell the scent of a dollar from twenty km away and sprint in its direction accordingly – whether it’s attached to a rose or a rotting pig isn’t of note, the important thing is it’s a dollar and a dollar to Norman is as a surfer’s legs to a great white shark – but I digress; should this appalling brief of ongoing Saudi atrocities against defenceless Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers come to Norman’s attention I expect his response would be, ‘Well, there ya go. They don’t play golf, do they?’

    How the western hemisphere continues to brown-nose the Arabs is a mystery beyond comprehension; albeit all morals, scruples, concerns about human rights, behaviour based on an active and appropriate conscience and so on all take second seat behind the primacy of maintaining access to the pipeline of the Great Gush, Crude Oil.

  3. Clakka

    Canguro, the western hemisphere, principally, but not only Britain, not only brown-nose the Arabs, but are now under the Tories and Rishi Sunak implementing the most heinous cruelties from the worst, and also going for the planet destroying riches from crude.

    Northern and central Africa is a hotbed of crazed and deadly instability. Withe the coup in Niger being one of the latest, it seems to be spiralling out of control. The coup leader ignoring the pleas of his neighbours and the ‘west’, he is openly inviting the Wagner group in to ‘sort out the troubles’. Of course, the Wagner Group, as proxy for Putin’s Russia is running rampant through the entire north / central African region, destroying, killing, pillaging, extorting and exerting influence only to garner its own wealth and reach – more of the ‘Ukraine model’

    With Prigozhin’s alleged demise, will a headless Wagner in Africa now just run amok? How will the desperate Putin now arrange plausible deniability?


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