CAIRO (AP) — A prominent rights group Thursday accused Yemen's Houthi rebels and rival Saudi border guards of killing several dozen Ethiopian migrants in an incident at the border earlier this year.
The statement from New York-based Human Rights Watch quoted Ethiopian migrants who said Houthi fighters in April rounded up thousands of them from their unofficial settlement area in al-Ghar town in the country’s northwestern Saada province. The migrants said they were forced into pickup trucks and driven to the nearby Saudi border. During the process, Houthis screamed that the migrants were “coronavirus carriers” and fired at anyone who tried to escape, the witnesses said.
Once the Ethiopian migrants arrived at the Saudi border, they got caught up in clashes between their Houthi escorts and Saudi border guards, the rights group said.
“It was early in the morning (on April 16) and they told us to leave in two hours,” said an Ethiopian woman. “Most people left, but I stayed. But after two hours, they started firing bullets and rockets — I saw two people killed.”
Yemen's ongoing civil war pits the Houthis, who occupy the north, against a U.S-backed. and Saudi-led coalition that supports an internationally recognized government in the south.
“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.”
Neither Houthi nor Saudi officials could be immediately reached for comment.
Thousands of East Africans make the perilous journey from the Horn of Africa to oil-rich Saudi Arabia through war-torn Yemen every year, hoping to escape poverty and instability in their home countries. They are exposed to many forms of abuse, including abduction, trafficking and arrest and detention. In recent months, migrants have also been faced with growing xenophobia as a result of the spread of the coronavirus, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Many of the migrants interviewed by HRW in the April incident said they saw dead bodies but the exact casualty toll could not be determined. Those who managed to return to the settlement area saw their tents and shelters had been destroyed, an account that HRW was able to confirm later using satellite imagery.
Some of the migrants told HRW that Saudi border guards fired at them using mortar shells and rocket launchers. They were eventually transferred to “unsanitary and abusive” detention facilities in Jeddah and Jizan provinces. There some were beaten and had their money and belongings confiscated. Hundreds of others, including children, may still be stranded in the mountainous border region, the rights group said.
“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.”
HRW urged both Houthi and Saudi authorities to investigate the killings and the abuses endured by Ethiopian migrants.
In 2014, Iran-backed Shiite Houthi rebels overran Yemen’s northern parts and the capital Sanaa, forcing the U.N.-backed government to flee to the south, In 2015, a Saudi-led coalition launched a war on the Houthis hoping to reinstate the government of President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The 5-year-old conflict in the Arab World’s poorest country has resulted in a military stalemate and killed more than 100,000 people including thousands of civilians.