“If these killings were committed as part of the Saudi government's policy of killing migrants, they would be a crime against humanity,” Human Rights Watch said.
The report accuses Saudi forces – including border guards and special forces – of killing “hundreds, possibly thousands” of Ethiopians in recent years and subjecting survivors and detainees to torture, rape and other inhumane treatment.
The Saudi Foreign Ministry did not respond to a request for comment. Human Rights Watch said it had written to several Saudi institutions — including the Interior Ministry and the Human Rights Commission — but had received no response at the time of publication. In statements to news organizations after the report was published, the Saudi government has denied the allegations.
Saudi Arabia-led airstrikes in Yemen have been labeled a war crime. Many relied on US support.
The United States regards Saudi Arabia as a key strategic partner — and US soldiers and personnel have been training Saudi security forces, including border guards, there as part of a long-standing security assistance mission.
A State Department spokesman called the report's findings “worrying” on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the ministry and said Washington had expressed its concerns to Riyadh about the allegations. “The government has not provided/authorized any arms sales to the land border guards involved,” the spokesman said, adding that Yemeni border guards do not participate in US government training.
The alleged abuses come at a time when Yemen and Ethiopia are both mired in conflict, protracted crises that have sparked migration from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In 2020, Ethiopia's Tigray region saw a violent clash between government forces and the Tigray People's Liberation Front, a paramilitary group whose political wing once ruled the country.
The fighting led to a major humanitarian disaster, including a mass exodus, and in 2022 more than 24 million people affected by conflict, drought and hunger in Ethiopia received humanitarian assistance, the United Nations said said.
Human Rights Watch now estimates that Ethiopians — fleeing war, hunger and persecution — make up more than 90 percent of migrants who travel to Saudi Arabia via the “eastern route.” It's a perilous trail that begins in the Horn of Africa, crosses the Gulf of Aden and winds its way through war-torn Yemen to the rugged mountains of Saudi Arabia's Jizan province.
According to the International Organization for Migration, around 750,000 Ethiopians live in Saudi Arabia, and most of them arrived “irregularly”. Both Saudi Arabia and Yemen's Houthi movement, which controls the northern province of Saada near the Saudi border, have been accused of detaining migrants in poor conditions and subjecting them to ill-treatment, Human Rights Watch said.
Hundreds were massacred in Ethiopia while a peace deal was still being reached
But it is against this background of general instability that the human rights group says it has documented the rise in violence against Ethiopians at the border, where respondents told harrowing stories of ruthless smugglers, piles of bodies and devastating mortar and rocket attacks that left migrants dismembered and on the die track.
“I've seen people killed in ways I could never have imagined. “I saw 30 people killed on the spot,” a 14-year-old girl named Hamdiya is quoted in the report. She crossed the border in February in a group of 60 people, Human Rights Watch said.
After the mass murder, she threw herself under a rock and slept. “I could feel people sleeping around me,” she said. “I realized that what I thought were the people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies.”
In another report, Munira, 20, describes scenes of horror and chaos after Saudi border guards released her and 19 others at the border with Yemen – only to fire mortar shells at them minutes later as they were resting.
“They shot at us like rain,” said Munira, who is from Ethiopia's Oromia region. “I saw a man calling for help, he lost both his legs. He cried; He said, ‘Are you going to leave me here?' Please don't leave me.' We couldn't help him because we were running for our lives.”
Survivors weren't sure what specific weapons were used, but reported being hit by what appeared to be rocket launchers attached to the backs of vehicles.
Human Rights Watch sent photos taken by survivors to outside experts for forensic analysis, who determined that “a variety of weapons” appeared to have been used against the migrants. “Some injuries have characteristics consistent with gunshot wounds, while others have clear patterns consistent with the explosion of artifacts with the ability to generate heat and shrapnel,” the group noted.
Last year, UN Experts | They said they received allegations that Saudi security forces used “artillery shells and smallfire” against migrants, killing up to 430 people between January 1 and April 30, 2022.
Nadia Hardman, researcher on refugee and migrant rights at Human Rights Watch, said she was first made aware of the “extraordinary” number of killings by a UN communiqué in October. Through her networks in Yemen and the Ethiopian diaspora, she was given remote access to survivors living in Saada, Yemen, and Saana, the Yemeni capital. After the interviews, they pass on photos and videos of injuries they or others have sustained to her.
To confirm the large number of images, Human Rights Watch's digital investigative team geolocated video and mapped Saudi border guard posts by analyzing satellite imagery. “There we could find burial sites that had gotten bigger,” Hardman said. “There we were able to geolocate all these open source videos on TikTok that people were filming of crowds of Ethiopians trying to cross the border.”
The report's findings are based on similar interviews with 42 Ethiopians, either migrants or asylum seekers who made the journey themselves or friends and relatives of those who attempted to cross the border between March 2022 and June 2023. It also includes analysis of over 350 photos and videos taken between 2021 and July, as well as more than 100 square miles of satellite imagery taken between February 2022 and July 2023.
According to Human Rights Watch, the footage helped confirm the locations of border checkpoints and detention camps, as well as the presence of bodies along routes and a growing number of makeshift burial sites for migrants on both sides of the border.
“Saudi officials are killing hundreds of migrants and asylum seekers in this remote border area that is not visible to the rest of the world,” Hardman said in a statement. “Saudi border guards knew, or should have known, that they were firing on unarmed civilians.”
The alleged crimes should be “investigated independently and impartially,” according to Human Rights Watch, including by the United Nations.
“Saudi Arabia's documented failure to address serious human rights abuses … casts doubt on its willingness to conduct a meaningful investigation, despite the seriousness of the alleged violations,” the report said.
Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.