Beirut (Debriefer) - Houthi forces in April 2020 forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from northern Yemen using Covid-19 as a pretext, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Thursday accusing the group of "killing dozens and forcing them to the Saudi borders" where the "guards then fired on the fleeing migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area.
Migrants told HRW that on or about April 16, Houthi fighters in green military uniforms brutally rounded up thousands of Ethiopians in al-Ghar, an unofficial migrant settlement area in Sa'ada governorate.
"The Houthi forces, who were regularly seen patrolling the area, forced the migrants into pickup trucks and drove them to the Saudi border, firing small arms and light weapons at anyone who tried to flee.
"Witnesses said that Houthi fighters screamed that the migrants were 'coronavirus carriers' and had to leave al-Ghar within hours."
"After two hours, they started firing bullets and rockets – I saw two people killed," the organization quoted an Ethiopian woman as saying.
"Once migrants approached within one to two hundred meters of the border, Saudi border guards in gray and tan uniforms started firing at them with what witnesses described as mortar shells and rocket launchers. They said that Houthi forces responded by firing at the Saudi border guards and at any migrants who tried to escape from the chaos of the fighting back into Yemen," HRW reported.
Many migrants managed to escape to a riverbed near the mountains where they sheltered for up to five nights. People interviewed described hearing gunshots for at least two days. Eventually they either surrendered or Saudi border guards found them. The border guards took them to what the migrants described as a 'military camp' five minutes travel from the Saudi border where they were held for several hours."
"The border guards then separated men and women, including families, and transported them over the next few days in small cars and pickup trucks to a detention facility in al-Dayer, a governorate of Jizan province in southwest Saudi Arabia. From there the migrants were taken to other detention facilities in Jizan and Jeddah."
"The lethal disregard Houthi and Saudi forces have shown civilians during Yemen's armed conflict was replayed in April with Ethiopian migrants at the Yemeni-Saudi border," said refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW.
"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," Nadia Hardman added.
"Houthi authorities should investigate and appropriately punish commanders and fighters responsible for the killing, forcibly expulsion, and other abuses against Ethiopian migrants in the vicinity of al-Ghar.
"Saudi government should investigate and fairly prosecute border guard responsible for unlawfully firing on Ethiopian migrants near the border area. Saudi authorities should also end the arbitrary and abusive detention of thousands of Ethiopian migrants. In the interim, it should release children and pregnant and nursing women and should immediately improve conditions in detention centers."
"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," Hardman said in the HRW report.
An unpublished 2019 study found that over 90 percent of migrants passing through Yemen come from Ethiopia.
Thousands of Ethiopian workers heading for Saudi Arabia pass through Yemen monthly, but anti-Covid-19 restrictions in the war-torn country have decreased the number of arrivals.