Yemen’s migrant crisis hits the headlines

Summary: a devastating fire in a migrant holding camp draws attention to the desperate situation of African migrants seeking to use Yemen as an entry point to Saudi Arabia and other GCC states.

We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and has written about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant. Her book “Yemen in Crisis: the Road to War”, published by Verso in 2019, is a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it. Her recent Arab Digest podcast on the Yemen situation is available here.

On 7 March, at least 44 Ethiopians were killed in a fire at Sana’a’s immigration centre prison. According to witnesses it appears to have been deliberately started by their Houthi jailers in response to a hunger strike by the detainees to attract attention to the inhumane conditions under which they were held. Actual figures of deaths are unavailable, with reports that hundreds died in the fire and later in hospitals, but a figure of 190 injured has been frequently mentioned. The Houthis have prevented those in hospital from telling their stories by keeping them in isolation. Human Rights Watch and the Yemeni Human Rights group Mwatana both give detailed accounts of the event.

Scores of mostly Ethiopian migrants protesting detention conditions burned to death after Houthi forces launched projectiles into the centre causing a fire

It may come as some surprise that Yemen is a destination for migrants, as people rather expect Yemenis to be fleeing the violence and seeking refuge across the Red Sea after 6 years of war and in the midst of what the UN (at last) admits to be a famine. Here I update readers on the situation of migrants, while the disastrous humanitarian situation in Yemen also illustrates the desperate conditions prevailing along the Red Sea coasts, where everyone is still hoping that the abandoned oil tanker, the Safer FSO, will be dealt with before the anticipated international catastrophe (see earlier postings).

Yemen is rarely the final destination for Ethiopians and Somalis, but is still the main route towards Saudi Arabia and other GCC states with their attendant dreams of wealth and success for thousands of impoverished people suffering climate change and war in the Horn of Africa. Figures for recent years are sobering, with significantly more migrants heading for Yemen than crossed the Mediterranean until 2020 when all migration dropped significantly as a result of the Covid 19 medical emergency.

Year Numbers crossing the Mediterranean Numbers arriving in Yemen
2018 114 396 160 000
2019 100 084 138 213
2020 83 503* 37 535

*The figure for 2020 includes those arriving in Europe from the Atlantic Route. Data from International Organisation for Migration

Although thousands still arrive in Yemen, it is surprising how many are still unaware of its war, now entering its seventh year. Their ignorance of the true conditions is partly due to misinformation by traffickers deliberately misleading potential candidates for the trip that it is safe and easy. This puts thousands at risk, not only of drowning during the crossing but later of exploitation and abuse once in Yemen, when they find that onward travel involves going through heavily militarised border areas. The callousness of smugglers was most recently manifested on 3 March as “at least 20 people drowned when human traffickers forced dozens of passengers to jump off a crowded boat bound for Yemen. And that was the third such drowning in six months.”

Yemen is the only country in the Peninsula which is a party to the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees, but only recognises Somalis as refugees, not Ethiopians. Between the 1990s and the first decade of this century the majority arriving in Yemen were Somalis: as insecurity and war in Somalia ‘stabilised’ the ratio and numbers of Ethiopians increased. Between March 2015 and March 2017, 85% of arrivals in Yemen were Ethiopians, rising to more than 90% in the last two years, despite the fact that Ethiopians are subject to even greater racist discrimination and ill-treatment and, unlike Somalis, have no access to what public services still operate in Yemen.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Yemeni responses to Covid included highly discriminatory actions against Ethiopian migrants. Throughout the country, rumours, neither discouraged nor denied by officialdom, circulated that Ethiopians were responsible for the spread of covid-19, encouraging discrimination and ill-treatment. All groups controlling territory are guilty of a wide range of migrant abuses, including the Houthis and the Internationally Recognised Government (IRG). In 2020 more than 6000 migrants were detained in different parts of the country in abysmal conditions. The Houthis not only hold hundreds in camps on the Saudi border, in April last year they used force to drive migrants back into Saudi Arabia with HRW reporting dozens killed. The Houthis also forcibly transferred more than 15000 to the southern governorates, most of whom ended up in and around Aden where they are also subject to abuse.

In addition, smugglers in Yemen as elsewhere, are deeply involved in abusing migrants, mostly seeking ransoms from their families to release them. According to IOM, “migrants in Yemen continue to face the most egregious forms of abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, abduction for ransom, forced labour and physical violence.” While young men form the majority of these migrants, 17% of them are women, and thus even more vulnerable to a range of abuses. The IOM had to interrupt its voluntary repatriation flights in 2020 due to Covid, but is resuming them now, and uptake is higher than it was in the past.

In this context of prejudice, discrimination and abuse, accusations that the Houthis deliberately set fire to the Sana’a detention hangar this month are credible, and confirmed by numerous witness statements. Interestingly, on the 17th the Houthis issued an official apology ‘over the accidental incident’ and announced an investigation, which will certainly not conform to the kind of independent international investigation called for by the UN, EU, Human Rights Watch and others.

The number of East Africans heading for Yemen dropped enormously last year because of Covid, but will certainly rise again in coming months, as the worsening crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray region intensifies the ‘push’ factor. And the ‘pull’ factor remains in place as many are simply unaware of the increasingly hostile environment in Saudi Arabia where living and working conditions for migrant labour deteriorate, reducing the potential for savings and remittances. The migrants are unaware too of the complexities and dangers involved in travelling through Yemen, the realities of which are concealed by traffickers who actively promote the myth of easy passage to ensure profits, their form of active participation in a flourishing war economy.

This is a sample Arab Digest newsletter.

To start receiving complete daily newsletters, click on the link below for your Free 30-day Trial or Join Arab Digest now to receive full membership benefits.

Join TodayBack to Sample NewslettersFree 30-day Trial