News / Africa

Thousands of Migrants Stranded in Yemen

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Joe DeCapua
Humanitarian agencies say thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa are living in harrowing conditions along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border. Many have been robbed and tortured by traffickers.

Migrant workers from the Horn see Saudi Arabia as a place where they may find jobs. But getting there often means traveling to and through Yemen and becoming targets of smugglers and traffickers.

The routes to Yemen include long and dangerous boat trips from Somalia over the Gulf of Aden - and the much shorter trip from Djibouti across the Red Sea. But there, too, they are at the mercy of smugglers, who may rob them or even throw them overboard.

The International Organization for Migration estimates there are at least 25,000 migrants along the Yemen-Saudi border.

“The majority are Ethiopian migrants, who undertake this really quite dangerous journey. There’s also a number of refugees who come across. They’re mostly Somalis, who are recognized as refugees automatically here in Yemen because Yemen is a signatory to the refugee convention. But three-quarters of the flows coming across from the Horn of Africa are indeed Ethiopian migrants,” said Nicoletta Giordano, IOM’s Chief of Mission in Yemen.

Yemen does not recognize the Ethiopians as refugees.

“They find themselves destitute and quite exhausted by the journey by the time they get to the border with Saudi. And that’s where they fall prey to smugglers and traffickers with respect to the final leg of the journey over to Saudi Arabia,” she said.

To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia has tightened its foreign worker labor laws. It means the border is essentially closed to the migrants. Saudi Arabia has also resumed building a fence to eventually seal off the 1800 kilometer border with Yemen.

“Many of the foreign workers that were in Saudi up till now are no longer considered regular workers. And therefore are obliged to leave the country quite suddenly. And on the other hand, there are still thriving smuggling and trafficking communities at the border with Saudi, who have these large groups of migrants, who they are trying to get across. But they’re also trying to get money and possessions from [them] and that’s why they’re prey to abuse,” she said.

Recently, Yemen forces raided smuggler camps along the border at Haradh. They are reported to have rescued nearly 2,000 migrants being held against their will. Some had been sold from one smuggling group to another and some were held for ransom.

But even after being freed from the camps, there’s little humanitarian aid available for them. Aid agencies said their resources are already stretched very thin. The IOM is appealing for $1.2 million dollars to help Yemen provide shelter, food and health care.

A delegation from humanitarian agencies visited the Yemen-Saudi border Thursday. They describe conditions there as harrowing.

The stranded migrants are taken to the capital.

“The migrants are brought down to Sana’a. And, of course, they’re being held in the open, and the migrants would be free to actually walk off, but they’re not. They’re not, because it’s obvious that there’s nothing for them in Yemen. And so they’re quite keen to go back to Ethiopia,” said Giordano.

However, getting them back home is easier said than done. So far, only one of three scheduled military flights has left Sana’a for Ethiopia. There were 318 Ethiopians on board, a fraction of those wanting to return.

While more flights are being planned, the IOM says many migrants have sought shelter at the Ethiopian embassy and a Yemeni military base.

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