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Ethiopian migrants told Human Rights Watch that after they spent days stranded without food or water, Saudi officials allowed hundreds to enter the country, but then arbitrarily detained them in unsanitary and abusive facilities without the ability to legally challenge their detention or eventual deportation to Ethiopia. Hundreds of others, including children, may still be stranded in the mountainous border region.

“The lethal disregard Houthi and Saudi forces have shown civilians during Yemen’s armed conflict was replayed in April with Ethiopian migrants at the Yemen-Saudi border,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “United Nations agencies need to step in to address the immediate threats to the Ethiopian migrants and press for accountability for those responsible for the killings and other abuses.”

In June and July, Human Rights Watch interviewed 19 Ethiopian migrants, including 13 men, 4 women, and 2 girls, currently in Saudi Arabia or Ethiopia. The Houthi armed group, which took over the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 in an armed conflict that a Saudi-led coalition joined in March 2015, have for many years controlled Yemen’s northwest border areas.

Migrants told Human Rights Watch that on or about April 16, Houthi fighters in green military uniforms brutally rounded up thousands of Ethiopians in al-Ghar, an unofficial migrant settlement area in Saada governorate. The Houthi forces, who were regularly seen patrolling the area, forced the migrants into pickup trucks and drove them to the Saudi border, firing small arms and light weapons anyone who tried to flee.

Witnesses said that Houthi fighters screamed that the migrants were “coronavirus carriers” and had to leave al-Ghar within hours. “They [Houthi forces] created chaos,” said an Ethiopian woman. “It was early in the morning [on April 16] and they told us to leave in two hours. Most people left, but I stayed. But after two hours, they started firing bullets and rockets – I saw two people killed.”

Another woman, who was pregnant and traveling with her young child, said the Houthi forces were using “rockets” to clear the area: “There were lots of Houthi soldiers. There were more than 50 trucks. They were firing a mortar which you put on the ground and it fires. Everyone started to run to escape. I ran with a group of 45 people – and 40 people were killed in my group. Only five of us escaped. They were not firing guns, just these mortars.”

Twelve of the migrants interviewed witnessed killings of migrants or saw their bodies, but the number killed could not be determined. Migrants who managed to return to al-Ghar found their tent settlement and surroundings destroyed. Human Rights Watch reviewed satellite imagery recorded immediately before, during, and after the alleged attack, and observed widespread destruction of over 300 tents and houses consistent with witness accounts.

Once migrants approached within one to two hundred meters of the border, Saudi border guards in gray and tan uniforms started firing at them with what witnesses described as mortar shells and rocket launchers. They said that Houthi forces responded by firing at the Saudi border guards and at any migrants who tried to escape from the chaos of the fighting back into Yemen.

Many migrants managed to escape to a riverbed near the mountains where they sheltered for up to five nights. People interviewed described hearing gunshots for at least two days. Eventually they either surrendered or Saudi border guards found them. The border guards took them to what the migrants described as a “military camp” 15 minutes travel from the Saudi border where they were held for several hours. Human Rights Watch used satellite imagery to identify several possible Saudi military compounds positioned on hilltops overlooking the Yemeni border, consistent with location(s) described by witnesses from which Saudi forces fired at them.

مئات المهاجرين الإثيوبيين محتجزون في ظروف تعسفية وغير صحية في مركز جيزان لاحتجاز المهاجرين في مدينة جيزان، السعودية، بعد طردهم قسرا من اليمن في أبريل/نيسان 2020. ©2020 خاص

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Hundreds of Ethiopian migrants detained in unsanitary and abusive conditions at the Jizan immigration detention facility in Jizan City, Saudi Arabia, after being forcibly expelled from Yemen, April 2020. © 2020 private

Eight migrants said the border guards took their money, extra clothes, and other belongings. The border guards then separated men and women, including families, and transported them over the next few days in small cars and pickup trucks to a detention facility in al-Dayer, a governorate of Jizan province in southwest Saudi Arabia. From there the migrants were taken to other detention facilities in Jizan and Jeddah.

Using satellite imagery, geospatial datasets and witness accounts, Human Rights Watch identified two complexes in al-Dayer and Jizan, the provincial capital, which appear to be the facilities holding Ethiopian migrants.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six Ethiopian men currently detained in Jizan, a woman at the Shmeisi Detention Center east of Jeddah, and six Ethiopian women and girls recently deported back to Ethiopia at a quarantine center in Addis Ababa. All were detained first in al-Dayer and then in a detention center in Jizan.

They uniformly described poor detention conditions including overcrowding, blocked and overflowing toilets, lack of beds and blankets, lack of medical care including prenatal care for those who were pregnant, inadequate food and water, and poor toilet facilities. They described serious skin problems they said were caused by the unhygienic conditions. Three men said that guards beat them for complaining about the conditions. Photo images and videos of detainees in al-Dayer and a detention center in Jizan corroborated the witness accounts, including a video showing hundreds of women crowded together in ankle-deep dirty water screaming and crying.

Houthi authorities should investigate and appropriately punish commanders and fighters responsible for the killing, forcible expulsion, and other abuses against Ethiopian migrants in the vicinity of al-Ghar.

The Saudi government should investigate and fairly prosecute border guard officials responsible for unlawfully firing on Ethiopian migrants near the border area. Saudi authorities should also end the arbitrary and abusive detention of thousands of Ethiopian migrants. In the interim, it should release children and pregnant and nursing women and should immediately improve conditions in detention centers. Immigration detention should be applied as an exceptional measure of last resort, for the shortest period, and only if justified by a legitimate purpose. Children should never be detained for migration-related reasons.

“Hundreds if not thousands of Ethiopian migrants are now languishing in squalid detention centers in Saudi Arabia or remain stranded at the border,” Hardman said. “The United Nations needs to work with the Saudis and Ethiopians to assist in the voluntary return of Ethiopians in detention or still stranded at the border.”

Ethiopian Migration Route to Saudi Arabia
An unpublished 2019 study found that over 90 percent of migrants passing through Yemen come from Ethiopia. A combination of factors, including economic difficulties, drought, and human rights abuses have driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate over the past decade, mostly traveling irregularly by boat over the Red Sea and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that nearly 140,000 migrants arrived in Yemen in 2019. In 2019, Human Rights Watch documented a network of smugglers, traffickers, and authorities in Yemen that kidnap, detain, and beat Ethiopian migrants and extort them or their families for money. (For More, CLICK HERE!)

Source: Human Rights Watch


Ethiopians Abused on Gulf Migration Route

Trafficking, Exploitation, Torture, Abusive Prison Conditions

African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen, on April 23, 2019. © AFP/Getty Images
African migrants receive food and water inside a football stadium in the Red Sea port city of Aden in Yemen, on April 23, 2019. © AFP/Getty Images

(Addis Ababa) – Ethiopians undertaking the perilous journey by boat across the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden face exploitation and torture in Yemen by a network of trafficking groups, Human Rights Watch said today. They also encounter abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia before being summarily forcibly deported back to Addis Ababa. Authorities in Ethiopia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia have taken few if any measures to curb the violence migrants face, to put in place asylum procedures, or to check abuses perpetrated by their own security forces.

A combination of factors, including unemployment and other economic difficulties, drought, and human rights abuses have driven hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians to migrate over the past decade, traveling by boat over the Red Sea and then by land through Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and neighboring Gulf states are favored destinations because of the availability of employment. Most travel irregularly and do not have legal status once they reach Saudi Arabia. (To Read More, CLICK HERE!)

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