Bloodshed at the Border: Mass Killing of Ethiopian Migrants by Saudi Arabian Border Guards

Bloodshed at the Border: Mass Killing of Ethiopian Migrants by Saudi Arabian Border Guards
Photo by Ed Hinchliffe via Unsplash


Mariana Mayor Lima

Middle East and Human Rights Researcher 

Global Human Rights Defence

Since March 2022, Saudi Arabian border guards have been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers trying to cross the country's border into Yemen. According to investigations by Human Rights Watch, Saudi border guards used firearms and explosives to kill Ethiopians crossing the border in search of a better and safer life. [1] 

Although economic reasons are among the main motivations for migration, a significant number of Ethiopians seek refuge in Saudi Arabia, hoping to escape the human rights violations that are taking place in their country, such as the armed conflict in northern Ethiopia. However, even on the border of the country they believe will provide them with security, they suffer serious attacks on their rights, including intentional killings.

The perilous migration route stretching from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, known as the ‘Eastern Route’, has been the scene of numerous dangers for migrants. [2] However, according to data collected by the Human Rights Watch report titled ‘They Fired On Us Like Rain’, when analysing nearly a decade of documentation of these violations, it is possible to identify changes in both the scale and nature of the violence, abuses that were previously considered sporadic violence have given way to ‘widespread and systematic murders’. [3] 

The crimes perpetrated against these individuals are so severe that, if they were part of state policy, they could be considered crimes against humanity. According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, “crimes against humanity” can be defined as “a set of heinous acts, such as murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, sexual violence, persecution for various reasons committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against civilian populations, pursuant to or in furtherance of a state or organizational policy to commit such an attack.” [4] Crimes against humanity can be committed outside of the times of war, which would render the provision applicable. However, neither Ethiopia nor Saudi Arabia are state parties to the Rome Statute.

The exact count of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who died at the Saudi border remains an unfathomable tragedy, with no hard figures available. However, through the testimonies of survivors, it is possible to have a real understanding of the performance of Saudi border guards, based on the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons and point-blank shootings, and their gravity for the status of human rights in the region.

Sources and further reading:

[1] Human Rights Watch, ‘Saudis’ Newest Horror Involves Shooting, Shelling Migrants at the Border’ (01 September 2023) <> accessed 05 September 2023.

[2] Human Rights Watch, ‘They Fired on Us Like Rain’ (21 August 2023) <> accessed 05 September 2023.

[3] Ibid.

[4] International Criminal Court, ‘Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court’ (01 July 2002) <> accessed 07 September 2023.