DUBAI: Ethiopian migrants who crossed the sea in pursuit of a better life have one goal in mind as they hide in the Saudi mountains: avoid border guards, and their deadly shots.
Only when night falls on this part of southern Saudi Arabia do the undocumented migrants dare venture into nearby villages to scavenge for food, returning with scraps they hope will keep them alive until smugglers can find them a job.
“Every day we are scared of dying. We beg people in the village to give us flour and bread, and then we go back into the mountains,” said Mohammed, 30.
“People here are very scared to help us find job opportunities since it’s illegal, so we consider ourselves trapped between life and death.”
HRW accuses Saudi forces of killing hundreds of Ethiopians trying to enter Kingdom in 2022-23
Hundreds of thousands of African migrants each year brave the perilous “Eastern Route” across the Red Sea and through war-scarred Yemen to reach Saudi Arabia, a desperate ploy to pull their families out of grinding poverty.
Every phase of the journey is treacherous, but there are growing fears the final stretch over the Yemeni highlands into southern Saudi Arabia has become more lethal than ever.
In August, Human Rights Watch accused Saudi border guards of killing “at least hundreds” of Ethiopians trying to cross into the Gulf kingdom between March 2022 and June 2023, using explosive weapons in some cases.
Riyadh dismissed the findings as “unfounded and not based on reliable sources”.
Mohammed was still a teenager when he first made the journey from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia, travelling over land to Djibouti before hiding in a fishing boat for the sea crossing.
Mohammed had a fairly straightforward trip over the border to Saudi Arabia, where his smuggler found him a job as a shepherd.
Three years ago, however, he lost the job and was forced to return to his home village in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, where he encountered the same situation that had prompted him to leave in the first place: no money, no prospects.
Last year he raised the funds — roughly $2,500 — for a second passage to Saudi Arabia, but this time the trip was more harrowing, especially when he got to the Saudi-Yemeni border.
“Every two metres (yards) you find dead Ethiopians,” he said. “Saudis open fire on Ethiopians as if we are not human beings, as if we are garbage.”
Saudi state media in August quoted a government source saying that such claims were baseless and that Saudi authorities were committed to upholding human rights.
Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2023