US knew Saudis were killing, abusing migrants at the border


Late last year, about the time when US diplomats were learning about the border violence, Biden accused Saudi Arabia of acting against US interests on other issues. Saudi leaders had cut oil production, potentially leading to a rise in global oil prices before the midterm elections. Biden administration officials thought they had reached a secret agreement for the Saudis to increase production. Biden vowed to impose “consequences” on Saudi Arabia.

“We face these cases daily coming from the border areas: dead and seriously wounded, women, old people and children.”

Mujahid al-Anisi, the head of the emergency unit at al-Jumhori Hospital

Further straining relations, Saudi Arabia had declined to join Western sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. And Saudi Arabia’s decision to decrease oil production seemed to support Russia’s economy, which relies on oil and gas exports.

In recent months, Biden and his aides have been talking to Saudi officials about their country establishing diplomatic relations with Israel, which would be a major geopolitical coup. In those discussions, the Saudis have asked the United States for security guarantees, more lethal weapons and help with a nuclear energy program. Biden might speak with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia, on the sidelines of a leadership summit of the G20 summit next month in New Delhi.

Some members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have strongly criticised Saudi Arabia for its human rights record, including its long war in Yemen. Those lawmakers will almost certainly raise further doubts about selling more arms to Saudi Arabia or working with it on a civilian nuclear program, which some US officials fear could be cover for a nuclear weapons program.

Among those briefed on the killing last December by UN officials was Steven Fagin, the US ambassador to Yemen, according to a person who was present. About that time, the UN also shared information with others at the State Department and with diplomats from France, Germany, Holland, Sweden and the European Union, this person said.

Inside Yemen, the border killings are anything but secret. Some attacks are reported on Yemeni television, and many of those wounded end up in Yemeni hospitals.


“We face these cases daily coming from the border areas: dead and seriously wounded, women, old people and children,” Mujahid al-Anisi, the head of the emergency unit at al-Jumhori Hospital, a Yemeni facility near the main crossing zone, told the Times by phone Wednesday.

The hospital receives an average of four or five cases a day, he said. Many are found by the road unconscious and driven 12 hours to the hospital with wounds in their heads, chests and abdomens that require urgent surgeries. Some need amputations. About 1 in 10 are women.

“These people arrive so worried and badly wounded,” he said.

Aid workers and UN officials have been tracking the violence since early last year, but international efforts to investigate the matter have been few, and public efforts to make it stop even fewer.

That’s because of many factors, aid workers said. Delivering aid in war zones like Yemen requires not angering one’s hosts, including the rebels who control northern Yemen and facilitate human trafficking, or one’s funders, which in some cases includes Saudi Arabia.

Rights violations, no matter how grave, rarely take priority when diplomats do business with their counterparts from rich partners like Saudi Arabia. And most efforts at accountability first call for Saudi Arabia to investigate itself, which it has shown little willingness to do.

Further limiting attention to the killings is their location, in an inaccessible border zone, where journalists, activists and other independent observers can’t witness events.

Human rights groups have long documented threats to migrants from East Africa who cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and head north toward Saudi Arabia, where they hope to find work or escape political persecution. They started getting reports of increased violence on the border about two years ago.

Last September, Mwatana reported that the bodies of about 30 Yemeni and Ethiopian migrants had been found May 12, 2022, on the Saudi side of the border, some bearing gunshot wounds or signs of torture. A State Department human rights report on Saudi Arabia last year mentioned Mwatana’s research in a paragraph.

The Missing Migrants Project of the International Organisation for Migration found that at least 788 migrants had died near the Saudi border in 2022, mostly from artillery or gunfire. The actual number of those killed was likely much higher, the organisation said.


Last October, a group of UN experts confronted Saudi Arabia with reports similar to what Human Rights Watch would later find. They cited allegations that border guards had shot at migrants, killing as many as 430 in the first four months of 2022, and raped women and girls, sending some back to Yemen naked.

The experts said that, if confirmed, the incidents would indicate “a deliberate policy of large-scale, indiscriminate and excessive use of lethal force” to deter migrants and urged Saudi Arabia to rein in its forces.

The kingdom denied the allegations and said it needed more detail in order to investigate.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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