File photo: REUTERS/Faisal Nasser

By Katelin van Zyl

On Monday 21 August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) publicly released a report documenting “widespread and systematic” abuses committed by Saudi border guards against mostly Ethiopian refugees trying to cross from Yemen into Saudi Arabia. Ethiopian and other African refugees and migrants have been targeted with firearms, explosives, and artillery and mortar shelling. Between March 2022 and June 2023, hundreds, or even thousands, were killed, while many others were injured or detained. Other abuses, perpetrated with impunity, include rape and assault of those taken into Saudi custody. Many migrants and refugees have also experienced abuse within Yemen from both the government and the Houthi armed group. The network of smugglers, traffickers and authorities operating inside Yemen have long taken advantage of refugees and migrants, with HRW reporting kidnappings, detentions, physical abuse, extortion, and deportation.

East African refugees and migrants – mainly Ethiopians of Tigrayan or Oromo ethnicity but also Eritreans and Somalians – try to reach Saudi Arabia via the ‘Yemeni Route’. Also known as the ‘Eastern Route’, it passes through the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti to Yemen by boat and then by land to Yemen’s Saada governate bordering Jizan province in Saudi Arabia. Two makeshift “camps,” said to be controlled by the Houthis, house refugees on the Yemeni side while they prepare to journey across the border. The mountainous border they must traverse is reportedly littered with landmines, and border guards threaten refugee groups (ranging from a handful to several hundred people) with deadly attacks and detention. Despite serious risks, some East Africans make several attempts to cross over.

HRW has said Saudi Arabia’s attempt to improve its global image by investing in professional golf, football clubs and major entertainment should not deflect attention from the horrific crimes committed against people at its border. Saudi Arabia’s global activities have included more than sport and entertainment but have also focussed on diplomatic initiatives to establish or restore constructive relations, especially in the Middle East. Two prominent, interrelated developments are the move towards normalising relations with Iran and pushing for peace in Yemen. Saudi Arabia has been a key supporter of the Yemeni government forces in the years-long Yemeni war. Backing for the Houthis by regional rival Iran has amplified the animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Last week, however, Saudi Arabia hosted Iran’s foreign minister for the first such visit in years, during which the war in Yemen was one of the main topics of discussion. Saudi Arabia has also engaged in direct talks with Houthi leaders, most recently in April in Sana’a (Yemen’s capital). Despite this, on the domestic front, Saudi Arabia is ranked 13th by Open Doors among countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. While there is a small number of Saudi converts to Christianity, the majority are migrant workers from Africa and Asia or other foreigners. Migrant workers from Africa and Asia are often discriminated against, exploited, and poorly paid due to their ethnicity and Christian faith. Even though perceived to be poor, lowly, and oppressed, we know that they are ‘rich’ and blessed because of the treasure they have in Christ (Jam 1:9; Col 3:2-3; Matt 13:44; 2 Cor 4:7; Eph 1:18; Eph 3:16-19; Matt 6:19-21; Rom 11:33). The global Church can pray for them to have the courage to reach out, sharing the hope of the Good News, and for soft and responsive hearts among those who do not yet know Jesus.

There is also a substantial number of African believers living in Yemen, who are less at risk of persecution for their faith than local Yemenis but face other hardships such as violence and humanitarian challenges. Yemen is ranked 3rd on the Open Doors World Watch List, where local Christian converts face the risk of death. Many Yemeni Christians do not benefit from emergency relief to help survive the humanitarian crisis, since it is distributed mainly through mosques, and local Muslims who are often selective in whom may receive aid. The global Church can pray for Yemeni believers that God will supply their every need as they trust Him. The Church can also cry out for those who risk much in the hope of finding safety and a better future – that even though the world may not offer what they seek, they will find that Jesus offers true peace, refuge, and an eternally-secure future for those who seek Him and put their faith in Him.

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For an end to the killing, exploitation and mistreatment of African refugees and migrants, perpetrated with impunity on both sides of the border
  • For Saudi and African believers to be encouraged and emboldened to faithfully serve in Saudi Arabia even when they are treated so poorly, praying for those who persecute them and reaching out to those who do not yet know Jesus
  • For Jehovah Jireh to provide for the needs of Yemeni believers and to continue building His Church in Yemen