Key mixed migration characteristics

For some years Yemen has played an important part in the exodus of migrants from the Horn of Africa as a country of transit and destination for an increasing mixed migration flow from the region particularly Ethiopia and Somalia. Yemen also hosts a rising number of refugees from the Horn of Africa, predominantly Somalis who are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis. Ethiopians make up over 75% of the flow at any given time while the flow of Somali migrants/refugees to Yemen has declined in recent years. During the month of June 2013, 1,087 Somalis made the crossing to Yemen.  

Virtually all those arriving in Yemen in the flow of mixed migration have left from Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland departure points controlled and facilitated by smugglers, and embark on the shores of the Red Sea or Arabian Sea.  As survival and livelihood conditions in Yemen have become progressively more difficult for refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented economic migrants, Yemen is increasingly being used as a transit country as people make their way north into Saudi Arabia for better opportunities. Many are unsuccessful and find themselves stranded in northern Yemen entirely without resources, unable to go forward into Saudi Arabia or return to Ethiopia.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia completed the construction of an 1,800 km border fence to curb irregular migration stretching from the Red Sea to Oman. The Yemeni authorities also begun raids on smuggling ‘dens’ in the border town of Haradh, which hosts over 25,000 stranded migrants. The raids resulted in the release of over 2,000 migrants during the month of April 2013. Due to the relative peace in Somalia and an upsurge in extremist attacks Yemen is less interested in refugees and has set up plans/policies to tame the irregular flows.

The U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 classifies Yemen as a country of origin and, to a much lesser extent, a transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking. However, recent data collected by the Yemen Mixed Migration Task Force indicates that as a point of transit for trafficking and smuggling, Yemen does play an increasingly important role especially in the case of Ethiopian migrants. Since the beginning of the on-going political conflict in Yemen that began in 2011, Yemen has also experienced internal forced migration and is reported to have over 300,000 IDPs displaced across the country.

Most recent statistics

There has been a downward trend in the number of migrants/asylum-seekers crossing the Gulf of Aden for Yemen. In December 2013, an estimated 244 migrants/refugees arrived on Yemen’s shores via Djibouti, an 82% decrease from arrivals in November 2013, and a 96% decrease from the migrants/refugees that arrived in December 2012 and 2011. In 2013 an estimated total of 48,102 individuals arrived in Yemen. This is compared with 107,532 in 2012; 103,154 in 2011 and 53,000 in 2010. Approximately 78% of all new arrivals in 2012 were from Ethiopia while 22% were from Somalia. This represents a change from three or four years ago when the majority of new arrivals were Somali. Furthermore, the Red Sea crossing from the Djiboutian coastline has become the preferred route of choice as opposed to the Arabian Sea crossing from the Puntland/Somaliland coastline.

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Yemen

According to UNHCR Statistical Online Population Database  April 2013[1];

Total refugee population hosted in Yemen = 242,002 of which;                       













Total Asylum Seekers in Yemen = 6,483

Total Yemeni refugees worldwide =  2,590

Total Yemeni Asylum Seekers worldwide = 1,597

Main drivers and motivation for migration

The dominant drivers causing Somalis and Ethiopians to move are insecurity and economic hardship in their countries of origin. Fear of war and persecution, escape from poverty and in particular, flight from drought in 2011 are the primary reasons for men, women and children to seek refuge and better opportunities in Yemen and beyond. In the case of Ethiopians, a significant proportion (Oromos predominantly) claim political persecution as the reason for their flight.

Despite the on-going political conflict in Yemen that started in March 2011, the mixed migration flow into the country continues and increases while the return of migrants from Yemen back to Somalia has been relatively low. Saudi Arabia - a popular country of secondary movement where migrants seek better livelihood opportunities – has constructed a border fence stretching from the Red Sea to Oman and has tightened border controls and deported many migrants back to Yemen. The flows have continued but due to the increased border restrictions a majority of the migrants remain stranded in northen Yemen.

UNHCR reports which tell of the Yemeni refugees hosted in other countries and the U.S. Department of State Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 indicate that there are a sizable number of Yemenis who voluntary join these migration ‘out’ flows and/or are trafficked. There are an estimated 8 million and 2 million expatriate workers and undocumented Yemeni migrants in Saudi Arabia respectively.  The total country population in 2011 estimated to be almost 25 million (UNDP; Human Development Report 2011) and a low poverty level index measured through the Human Development Index (score = 0462), ranked at 154 of 187 countries (UNDP 2011), it is not surprising that many Yemenis try to seek a better life elsewhere.

As a country of mixed migration origin

Although the figure provided by UNHCR for Yemeni refugees worldwide (see above) is fairly low, this does not account for those who are in irregular migrant situations. According to the U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons 2012 Yemeni is a source country. The recent (2011-2012) political crisis coupled with insecurity has contributed to a deteriorating humanitarian crisis that has forced most young men to migrate illegally to Saudi Arabia in search of work as day labourers where they constantly have to escape being pursued by the Saudi police. This is in addition to the annual and on-going irregular entry of many thousands of Yemenis into Saudi Arabia looking for work. Deportations back to Yemen are common. In many cases the deportees re-enter Saudi Arabia as soon as they are able.

As a country of mixed migration destination

Most migrants entering Yemen are escaping insecurity, political persecution, lack of economic opportunities/basic necessities and drought (mainly in Somalia and Ethiopia). An unknown number, mainly non-Somalis, use Yemen as a transit point en-route to the Gulf States and beyond and do not approach the authorities or UNHCR to seek asylum. Where they do, they would be required to undergo individual Refugee Status Determination - a process that has all but ceased due to the on-going conflict in Yemen – and through which many migrants have previously failed to acquire asylum (up to April 2013 thousands were arrested and / or deported to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia). In contrast, the majority of Somalis seek refuge upon arrival in Yemen as they are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis.

As a country of mixed migration transit

Mostly Ethiopian, but also many Somali, migrants attempt to use Yemen as a  transit point to reach Saudi Arabia and other Gulf or Middle East countries. The majority of Somali/Ethiopian arrivals that are intercepted and interviewed on arrival in Yemen indicate that they have no intention of seeking refuge in the country, but are only passing through as they attempt to cross into the Gulf States and beyond.

The fact that Saudi Arabia has tightened border controls and deported many back which has resulted in thousands (25,000 in 2013) stranded at the border town of Haradh, has done little to discourage the flow of those still hoping to make the crossing. There is no verifiable data to ascertain the percentage of ‘trapped’ migrants who fail to cross and those that are deported. Criminal smugglers and human trafficking gangs are profiting from the desperation of the migrants.

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

All the migrants arriving via the Red Sea or Arabian Sea routes travel by boat often after having been smuggled or, in some cases, trafficked from Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland. To get to these points of departure, the migrants first journey on foot or by vehicle. Those using the Somaliland coast as a point of departure usually originate from South-Central Somalia and, if they can afford it, sometimes fly to Hargeisa, Somaliland primarily to avoid being detained and turned back at check points in Puntland and Somaliland.

Migrants that use Yemen as a transit point are sometimes collected by vehicle upon arrival in Yemen and driven to the border areas by smugglers where they attempt to cross in to the Gulf States, usually on foot. Others attempt to walk from the coast to major cities or the Saudi border in northern Yemen.

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Yemen

For some years there have been reports of incidents of physical and sexual abuse of migrants during the sea journey and in some cases migrants have been thrown off the overcrowded boats and left to drown. In the last three years hundreds of people have been reported drowned or killed by smugglers. Upon arrival, some migrants report being held hostage in Yemen by the smugglers demanding an extra payment/ransom. Equally there are reports of coercion, rape, murder, kidnapping, extortion and physical assault. Perpetrators are normally the smugglers (or traffickers) but have also included state officials and members of village communities. Since the beginning of 2013, cases of migrants being thrown off the boat and left to die has declined. While at the same time the reported number of migrants being kidnapped and held for ransom has dramatically risen.

Since 2012 the cases of migrants drowning while at Sea have significantly declined. There may be a case to argue that the change could be attributed to the rising cases of kidnapping of migrants for ransom, which makes them of more value alive.

National immigration laws and policies

Officially the Yemeni government has always had a tolerant and progressive attitude towards refugees, hosting a large Somali population. Currently this good will has been de-railed by the on-going conflict where warring factions have accused each other of enlisting Somali refugees in the fighting.

The laws against trafficking in persons are to be found in the Yemeni Penal Code and the Child Rights Act. However, they do not explicitly prohibit debt bondage or other forms of forced labour and prostitution. According to the 2012 U.S. Department of State trafficking  in Persons report, there are sources that tell of hundreds of Yemenis (300-500) still being sold or inherited as slaves, a practice that dates back centuries in the country’s history.

The focus of protecting and rehabilitating victims of trafficking and prostitution (forced or otherwise), is more on children and the government has established centers/half-way houses in this regard. In collaboration with the government of Saudi Arabia – where many Yemeni children are employed as casual labour and to an extent in the sex trade – the Yemeni authorities have made steps to stem the flow across their borders. 

As an increasingly favoured country of transit, Yemen’s migrant population has grown in 2011. These people are in a vulnerable situation and are likely candidates for trafficking and further forced labour and prostitution. However, the government has taken no reported effective measures to address prostitution for commercial purposes in Yemen in the recent years nor tried to protect these migrants from being victimized.

Although the on-going conflict has hampered any attempts by the government in taking measures to combat trafficking in persons in the past year, in 2010 it launched an awareness raising campaign and designated certain government departments with the monitoring and investigating of the matter.

National laws

The following legislation is of particular importance in the area of mixed migration:

International conventions: Yemen, as the only country in the Arab peninsula, is a party to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Yemen ratified the Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, but has yet to ratify the Palermo Protocols.

National legislation (asylum): Yemen’s legal framework is based on Islamic/Shari’a law and the Koran. Yemen does not at present have a national refugee law, though with the assistance of UNHCR a draft Refugee Bill was prepared and discussed in 2004 and discussions on legislation are ongoing in 2013. In its most recent global appeal, UNHCR announced that it seeks to improve the understanding by government officials of the asylum process in the run-up to the promulgation of a refugee law. Yemen’s constitution makes a particular reference to refugee protection in its adherence to the principle of non-refoulement. To obtain a working permit, refugees have to apply to the Ministry of Labour.

National legislation (trafficking and forced labour): The laws against trafficking in persons are to be found in the Yemeni Penal Code and the Child Rights Act. However, they do not explicitly prohibit debt bondage or other forms of forced labour and prostitution.

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