The rise in targeted killings of Ethiopian migrants by Saudi border officials highlights the brutality of efforts to stop irregular migration, and the desperation of those who make the perilous journeys.
In August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that between March 2022 and June 2023, hundreds of Ethiopians trying to cross the Yemen-Saudi border were killed, and that the executions are continuing. Clashes with smugglers and authorities are a regular feature of irregular migration, but if this gruesome practice is a Saudi government policy, says HRW, the killings ‘would be a crime against humanity.’ A Saudi official said the allegations were unfounded.
Despite this, Saudi Arabia remains one of the top destinations for Ethiopians trying to reach the Middle East. Many migrants are aware of the life-threatening challenges but travel regardless, believing it’s better to take the chance and seek a better life than live in destitution and hopelessness in Ethiopia.
Environmental challenges, such as drought and famine in some parts of the country, and the recent armed conflict and widespread instability, are significant push factors. These, together with a lack of investigation and prosecution of criminal networks involved in irregular migration, drive the consistent movement of people along Africa’s ‘Eastern Route’.
Irregular migration from East Africa to Saudi Arabia
The primary route for migrant smuggling and human trafficking from East Africa to the Middle East is from Ethiopia via Obock in Djibouti, Bosaso in Somalia, Yemen and finally Saudi Arabia. In 2022, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that of the approximately 750 000 Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia, 450 000 entered the country unlawfully.
Many Ethiopians who move illegally to Saudi Arabia are assisted by fellow Ethiopians involved in human smuggling. This can lead to human trafficking, with migrants subjected to abuse and exploitation, including rape and torture. According to Deputy Commissioner Birhanu Abebe of the Ethiopian Federal Police Commission, the police have videos showing assaults deemed too horrifying for public consumption. The abuse sometimes starts in Ethiopia and is perpetrated by Ethiopian traffickers en route to Saudi Arabia.
An anonymous source told the ENACT organised crime project that Ethiopian traffickers sometimes work with Saudi law enforcement agents who look the other way. Or, if they are planning to take action, tip off the traffickers so they escape arrest.
The route to Saudi Arabia through Yemen is considered the most dangerous in the world. While militias in Yemen sometimes facilitate migrants’ journeys, they are also known to detain Ethiopians or kidnap them for ransom. Armed groups and smugglers on the Yemeni-Saudi border beat and abuse migrants, often compelling them to ask relatives back home for ransom payments.
Immigrants arrested by Saudi authorities face incarceration in appalling conditions where they suffer beatings and degrading treatment. Dire prison conditions can lead to migrants’ deaths and have prompted international organisations to call on Saudi Arabia to improve the state of its detention centres.
These organisations also asked Ethiopia to repatriate its citizens. The two countries eventually agreed in March 2022 to send home over 100 000 Ethiopians living in Saudi Arabia, most of whom were in detention centres. A year later, on 4 April 2023, Ethiopia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry confirmed that about 131 000 Ethiopians had been brought back. The repatriation involved numerous organisations, such as IOM and other international partners.
However, the repatriation campaigns are not effective, and there is no evidence that repatriation deters illegal migration. During the April 2022 to April 2023 campaigns, many migrants sent home to Ethiopia found their way back to Saudi Arabia. Deputy Commissioner Tesfaye Ashine of the Federal Police Commission said that in May, only a month after the repatriation was complete, the number of Ethiopians detained in Saudi prisons jumped from 1 500 to about 25 000.
Tesfaye was part of the multisectoral task force that travelled to Saudi Arabia to coordinate the immigrants’ return. There, he encountered an Ethiopian who remigrated to Saudi Arabia about 38 times. According to Deputy Commissioner Birhanu, it is common to come across people who have been smuggled into Saudi Arabia as many as 15 times.
Birhanu says repatriated migrants are taken to rehabilitation centres in Addis Ababa and then released to their home or host community. There are insufficient resources to keep them in centres, and no system can trace their whereabouts once they leave. This missed opportunity undermines investigations into the criminal value chain of illegal transactions, corruption and extortion en route to Saudi Arabia.
A police officer who requested anonymity told ENACT that Ethiopia didn’t have the resources or time to follow up on repatriated migrants, including those flagged as potential security threats. Nor were there sufficient resources to investigate the transnational networks that facilitate people smuggling and trafficking to Saudi Arabia. That means the country is losing vital information on smugglers’ identities and modus operandi.
The approach followed by Ethiopia’s criminal justice system needs to change. The investigation and prosecution of migrant smuggling and human trafficking is too reactive, starting only when a victim lays a complaint.
This is partly because officials believe the government’s response should be more about addressing the push factors than prosecuting the enablers. But it should be both. Ethiopia must tackle the root causes of irregular migration, while proactively investigating and prosecuting smugglers and traffickers for transnational organised crime.
Written by Tadesse Simie Metekia, Senior Researcher, Horn of Africa, ENACT, ISS Addis Ababa