Britain should hold Saudi accountable for migrant killings at the Yemen border
Imagine, if you will, Rishi Sunak setting up gun turrets on the white cliffs of Dover to pop off migrants as they arrive on our shores in their small boats.
Those that made it to the beach would be sent back but not before being asked which leg they wanted the guard to put a bullet through – to maim them and stop them returning.
Then, as they set off back to France they come under attack again, this time from mortar fire which blows their small boats to smithereens.
Although Britain is experimenting with the human rights of asylum seekers with deportation schemes and dodgy accommodation, this is still far-fetched for the UK. But this is what happened to Ethiopian refugees who tried to cross the border from Yemen into Saudi Arabia between March 2022 and June 2023, according to a new report.
''On the basis that five years is deemed an acceptable period of time for MBS to be brought in from the cold following the Khashoggi killing, he should never be allowed to darken the Downing Street door again in the light of what his border guards have been doing, with reports of bodies strewn across hillsides.''
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says hundreds, possibly thousands, of unarmed migrants fleeing their war-torn country were killed by Saudi Arabian border guards to stop them entering the desert kingdom.
Those who weren’t shot were beaten with rocks and metal bars. A 17-year-old boy told how he and others were forced to rape two girl survivors after another boy was shot for refusing to do the same.
Saudi Arabia has denied the allegations, but a growing chorus of Western officials and lawmakers, including the US State Department and Senator Bernie Sanders, are calling for an urgent investigation. But the UK has kept mum so far.
The report came just days after it emerged the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had been invited by Mr Sunak on a state visit to Britain in October. The pair will shake hands on the steps of Downing Street five years to the month since the Washington Post journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered by a Saudi hit squad at the country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi’s murder sent shockwaves around the world and was widely condemned including by then UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, who told the House of Commons that what happened to the Saudi dissident was “fundamentally incompatible with our values and we will act accordingly”.
On the basis that five years is deemed an acceptable period of time for MBS to be brought in from the cold following the Khashoggi killing, he should never be allowed to darken the Downing Street door again in the light of what his border guards have been doing, with reports of bodies strewn across hillsides.
The atrocities come after years of bombings by a Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in a civil war which has cost nearly 400,000 lives. UK weapons, sold to Saudi Arabia for billions of pounds have played a central role in the war in Yemen. Over half of Saudi Arabia’s combat aircraft used for the bombing raids are UK-supplied, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade.
Desperate refugees have been making the perilous journey from the Horn of Africa, crossing the Red Sea from Djibouti to Yemen, a country described by the UN as the world’s biggest humanitarian disaster due to the eight-year long conflict. Many perish on the way, such as two years ago when dozens were killed when fire swept through a detention centre in the Yemen capital Sanaa, which was controlled by Houthi rebels.
For those that do make it to the border there is the prospect of being shot on sight.
The HRW report, ‘They Fired On Us Like Rain’, came a month after a similar one by the Mixed Migration Centre which had detailed how rotting corpses were being left scattered across the border area following the killings.
HRW interviewed 42 people, including 38 Ethiopian migrants and four relatives of those who tried to cross, as well as analysing hundreds of photographs and videos posted on social media.
The butchery at the border can be added to a long list of crimes and human rights abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia which it has been accused of using its huge investment warchest, including in sport, to distract the world’s attention from.
As well as bombing Yemen back to the Dark Ages and the murder or Khashoggi, there was the execution of 81 people in one day last year, many who were political opponents, and the jailing of women’s rights activists such as Loujain al-Hathoul who had campaigned for the right to drive.
Last year following the £300m Saudi takeover of Newcastle United there were protests by LGBTQ+ groups outside Premier League stadiums in London, Southampton, Leeds and Norwich. Same sex relationships are illegal in Saudi Arabia, punishable by death.
Since 2021 Saudi Arabia has spent over £6bn pouring money into football, golf, boxing, motor racing and wrestling. The sportswashing is so that when the name Saudi Arabia is mentioned it conjures up in the public mind the image of a boxing glove coming up instead of the executioner’s sword going down.
The HRW researcher, Nadia Hardman, said of the border shootings: “Spending billions buying up professional golf, football clubs and major entertainment events to improve Saudi image should not deflect attention from these horrendous crimes.”
The sad truth is that for the UK government, a trade deal with the Gulf Co-Operation Council, of which Saudi Arabia is a leading member, and Saudi promises of UK investment ahead of next year’s election, comes ahead of anything that happens to those poor souls on that border crossing.
But, just as Hunt told the Commons in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder, the cold-blooded killing of more than 600 migrants is also incompatible with the UK’s stated values. Instead of unconditionally embracing Saudi Arabia and rolling the red carpet for its leaders without questions asked, the UK should urgently push for investigating the atrocity at the Yemen border, and scrutinise its role in fuelling the death and suffering there.
Anthony Harwood is a former foreign editor of the Daily Mail.
Follow him on Twitter: @anthonyjharwood
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.