Updated: April 2015

Key mixed migration characteristics

Yemen is a major country of destination and transit (to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States) for mixed migrants from the Horn of Africa. Yemen also hosts refugees from the Horn of Africa, predominantly Somalis, who are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis. In 2014, an estimated 91,592 migrants/refugees from the Horn of Africa made the crossing into Yemen via Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland departure points.  Since the outbreak of the Syrian armed conflict, there has also been an increased mixed migration flow from Syria to Yemen and as of mid-2014, UNHCR had registered 2,000 Syrian refugees, although numbers of irregular Syrian migrants are reported to be much higher. Yemen was always a transit country for migrants en route to Gulf States and the Middle East but as survival and livelihood conditions in Yemen have become progressively more difficult for migrants, Yemen is increasingly being used as a transit country for those making their way north into Saudi Arabia in search of better livelihoods.

To some extent, Yemen is also a country of origin for a mixed migration flow to the Gulf States. Yemen's government has been challenged by political instability and insecurity that have further weakened the country's social and economic situation. In 2014 an estimated 650,000 or more Yemenis were expelled and deported from Saudi Arabia as undocumented or irregular migrants. Internal conflicts, including tribal clashes, attacks and separatist movements, continue to create new displacement leading to significant numbers of Yemenis migrating to the Gulf States. Since the start of the political conflict in 2011, Yemen has also experienced internal forced migration and as at January 2015 was reported to have 334,093 IDPs. The escalating internal conflict in 2015 will no doubt have considerable impact on migration/refugee movement as well as numbers of IDPs. Trends have shown that reduced mixed migration flows correspond to seasonal lulls and the Yemeni government’s efforts to combat smuggling. In 2013, for instance the number of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Yemen dropped by 60% compared to the previous year in response to the major crackdown on irregular migrants in Saudi Arabia, the final destination for most migrants crossing into Yemen.

Most recent statistics

UNCHR data reveals that the numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Yemen have been steadily increasing over the last ten years with 25,898 arrivals recorded in 2006, which doubled in 2008 with 50,091 persons reported to have arrived  and rose further to 91,592 in 2014.Yemen’s mixed migratory patterns fluctuate and are driven by a wide range of factors often linked to crises in the countries of origin, sea conditions and the application of stringent border controls in the Gulf States etc.

Before 2008, Somalia was the country of origin of most refugees/asylum seekers in Yemen; however since 2008 Ethiopians have made up the majority of new arrivals with a smaller group comprising Eritreans. In 2014, approximately 78% of new arrivals were from Ethiopia and 22% from Somalia. The number of Somali refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen is on the rise and in 2014, there was a 79% increase of Somalis compared to 2013 even though in the last two years proportionally the number of Somalis arriving (compared to Ethiopians) was between 15-20% of total arrival figures every month. Whilst the Puntland and Somaliland coastlines along the Arabian Sea serve as a key route for migrants, the Red Sea crossing from the Djiboutian coastline has been the preferred route of choice for the majority of migrants (approximately 80% of the total) in recent years. However, this trend changed in last 2014 and early 2015 with approximately 50% - 60% of all crossings being made from Bossasso and Puntland. As of March 2015, Yemen established a maritime security zone in its territorial waters meant as a deterrence against irregular migrants entering Yemen.

In March 2015, the Saudi government announced a new zero tolerance policy on irregular migrants following a period (November 2013 and throughout 2014) of mass expulsions and deportations of up to a million or more irregular migrants from a range of countries living and working in Saudi Arabia ‘illegally’. According to IOM sources, over 650,000 of those expelled were Yemeni. Previous migrant policy reassessments by Saudi Arabia coupled with crackdowns on irregular labour migration and the construction of a border fence with Yemen led to the reduction of irregular migrants along the Yemen/Saudi border and an estimated 1 million of the estimated 9 million labour migrant work force either left willingly or were deported from Saudi Arabia.

Refugees and Asylum-seekers in Yemen

Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Somalis arriving in Yemen are granted prima facie refugee status by the Government, Syrians receive temporary protection, while UNHCR conducts Refugee Status Determination (RSD) for other nationalities. As mentioned, the vast majority of Ethiopian migrants attempt to make it to the Gulf States using Yemen as a transit country however there are some individuals who claim asylum in Yemen.

As at January 2015, Yemen hosts 257,645 refugees 244,204 of whom are prima facie Somali refugees with 5,934 Ethiopians and 1,254 Eritreans registered by UNHCR.  

 January 2015 Statistics









             Source: UNHCR

Main drivers and motivation for migration

Between 2011 and 2014, RMMS estimates (based on UNHCR and DRC data) that 364,000 Ethiopians and Somalis crossed the Red Sea and Arabian Sea to arrive on Yemen’s shores. The factors causing migration from the Horn of Africa into/through Yemen range from generalized conflict, human rights violations, insecurity and economic hardship in their countries of origin. There is also the pull drivers of available work overseas, aspirational migration and the power of successful stories of earlier migrants. A recent RMMS study on knowledge, attitude and practices of Ethiopian migrants notes that a ‘culture of migration’ or positive perceptions of migration are major drivers of migration. Although there are Ethiopians in Yemen who report that they face persecution in Ethiopia (a significant proportion of ethnic Oromos from Ethiopia claim this), the majority of Ethiopians who arrive in Yemen by boat are primarily motivated by economic reasons.

Despite the on-going political conflict in Yemen, the mixed migration flow into the country continues, while the return of migrants from Yemen to their countries of origin is relatively low. Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen to the North and a popular country of secondary movement for migrants, has increased border restrictions and in 2013 started construction of a border wall stretching from the Red Sea to Oman to try and prevent irregular migrants accessing its territory. According to reports the fence has not prevented irregular cross border movement, partly due to corruption of border officials who collude with smugglers.

As a country of mixed migration origin

The outbreak of the 2011 conflict in Yemen has led to an increase in both internal displacement and irregular migration of Yemenis to the Gulf States seeking better economic opportunities. In 2013, the number of Yemenis in Saudi Arabia was estimated to be 1.5 million. However with the Saudi government’s crackdown on irregular migration in late 2013 and early 2014, hundreds of thousands of Yemenis left or were arrested, detained or deported. According to IOM, there were 655,339 Yemeni returns from Saudi Arabia as of December 2014. 

As a country of mixed migration destination

Yemen is a destination country with large numbers of Somali refugees and asylum seekers. In addition to this, due to the increasingly stringent border controls by the Saudi Arabia and Oman, many Ethiopian migrants who are unsuccessful in reaching the Gulf States, find themselves stuck in Yemen either permanently or temporarily in order to raise enough funds for onward travel. An RMMS report noted that upon arrival on the coast of Yemen, men and women are often separated, and according to some reports and testimony the women may be sold off as virtual slave domestic workers while others are used in clandestine sexual exploitation networks.

As a country of mixed migration transit

A higher number of Ethiopians, but also some Somalis, 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.

Yemen is allegedly under pressure from Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries to stop these flows. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states view Yemen as the gateway for irregular migrants from the Horn of Africa, mostly from Ethiopia, into their territories. The fact that Saudi Arabia has tightened border controls and deported people back to Yemen, has done little to affect the flow of those still hoping to make the crossing.

Characteristics of migration (means and modes)

Migrants arriving via the Red Sea or Arabian Sea, travel by boat often after having been smuggled or, in some cases, trafficked from Djibouti, Somaliland and Puntland. Many smugglers deliver their human cargo at night or early dawn to avoid detection from the Yemeni coast guard and land-based security apparatus. To get to these points of departure, the migrants first journey on foot or by vehicle. Up to mid-2014 the majority of Ethiopians migrating to Yemen irregularly transited through Djibouti and travelled on foot, by bus and in lorries to Obock in Djibouti and then embarked on the smugglers’ boats operating across the narrow point in the Gulf of Aden, to Bab El Mandab in Yemen. Since 2014 and into 2015 the majority of Ethiopians and Somalis crossing to Yemen make the crossing from Bossaso area in Puntland. 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. Even though the overland route through Somaliland and Puntland is cheaper than the Djibouti route, irregular migrants run a higher risk of being attacked by criminal gangs, villagers and bandits. In early 2014 Djiboutian and Ethiopian authorities increased surveillance along migration routes and departure points and there are reports that Ethiopian and Djiboutian authorities are cooperating to detain and return irregular migrants using the Djibouti route, forcing smugglers and irregular migrants to take alternative routes.

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 to the Saudi border in northern Yemen. However, many are unable to reach Saudi Arabia because of the Saudi government’s crackdown on irregular migration and consequently become stranded in Yemen. Some migrants seek work in khat plantations or as shepherds, or car washers in major cities in order to raise money to pay for the remainder of their journey. Within Yemen, there are smuggling routes from Aden and Sana’a towards Saudi Arabia and smugglers may sometimes take migrants all the way to a destination in Saudi Arabia, or may leave them at the border. Reportedly, once at the Saudi border migrants must walk to their destination which may take days or weeks during which time they frequently face abuse and arrest.

Risks and vulnerabilities of mixed migration in Yemen

Mixed migrants using the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to cross over into Yemen face challenges and risks including dehydration, physical abuse by smugglers and brokers, sexual abuse, arbitrary arrest, detention and deportation by authorities in the transit countries. Somalis and Ethiopians en-route to Yemen are increasingly being kidnapped for ransom since 2012. They face extortion and torture in situations where ransom is not forthcoming or to encourage relatives and friends to pay up, and numerous incidences of sexual and gender based violence have been reported. The U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014 classifies Yemen as a country of origin and, a transit and destination country for men, women and children subjected to forced labour, sex trafficking and domestic servitude.

In addition to this, migrants are vulnerable to the dangers of travel by sea. The number of fatal incidents in the Gulf of Aden has risen; 264 people died while trying to reach the Yemeni coastline in 2014, exceeding the combined total of the previous three years (5 in 2013; 43 in 2012; and 131 in 2011) which represents 5.4% of the total number of known deaths that occurred along irregular migration routes worldwide. The absence of protection on sea is exacerbated by a critical lack of protection on land once the migrants arrive in Yemen. Many smuggled migrants are also abducted by armed extortion gangs on arrival and there are strong indications that smugglers are paid by the land based gangs to ‘deliver’ the migrants to them, making the line between their role as smugglers and traffickers increasingly thin. An RMMS report on Abduction of Migrants in Yemen noted the rise of criminal gangs solely operating along the Red Sea/Gulf of Aden coast of Yemen in 2011, escalating in 2012 and 2013. It is alleged that these gangs often work in collusion with smuggling crews, communicating with them before the smuggling vessel approaches land. Once the vessels docks on the Yemen Red Sea/Gulf of Aden shore, the migrants are reportedly abducted and transported to unknown smuggling homesteads or compounds, mostly located in the Taiz governorate of Yemen.

Detention of Migrants

The increasing use of immigration detention for irregular migrants, including asylum seekers, in Yemen is also a challenge. Migrants, excluding Somalis who are granted prima facie refugee status, are frequently arrested and detained for illegal entry as a routine measure instead of a measure of last resort. RMMS in its ‘Detention of Migrants’ report notes that whilst there is no clear policy in place on migrant detention, there is a clear trend of arresting irregular migrants, including asylum seekers upon arrival. In 2014, it was estimated that over 2,000 migrants were detained in immigration centres, out of which 99% were Ethiopian including women and children. Media reports also alleged that Eritrean migrants regularly ended up in detention centres.  Arrests occur on arrival along Yemen’s coast, on khat farms in the countryside targeting mostly male Ethiopian migrants or in the northern parts of Yemen where migrants transit through on their way to Saudi Arabia. In the southern governorates of Yemen, detention of migrants often happens along the coastal areas.

New arrivals are often encountered by government and military authorities (including military brigades and coast guards). In detention or other holding facilities, non-Somalis are screened for asylum seekers, refugees and vulnerable migrants by UNHCR implementing partners and IOM. Migrants are then transferred to Immigration Detention Centres or in police detention centres, as they await their court trials. They can also be detailed in central prisons that are used for criminal incarceration. Along the coastal areas, migrants are reportedly detained occasionally at ad hoc facilities at military or coast guard facilities.  

Responses by Authorities

Historically, the Yemeni government has had a tolerant and progressive attitude towards refugees, in particular hosting a large Somali population. The Yemeni government has opened its borders to Somali asylum seekers by adopting a policy of prima facie recognition towards Somali nationals, from the early stages of the Somali conflict to the present. In recent times however, this welcoming attitude has been derailed by Yemen’s ongoing civil conflict, in which both sides have accused the other of enlisting Somali refugees in the fighting. The Yemeni government has publicly expressed its concern over the number of Somalis arriving in the country, and the possibility of Al-Shabaab members being among them.

Reports indicate there is alleged collusion between traffickers and authorities. In a 2014 report, Human Rights Watch described how Yemeni traffickers in and around the northern town of Haradh found a brutal method of making money through taking migrants captive and transporting them to isolated compounds, inflicting severe pain and suffering to extort money from the migrants’ relatives and friends in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia. This practice was said to have begun as far back as 2006. It is alleged that Yemeni officials of various ranks and positions take bribes to turn a blind eye, or even play a more active role in the operations.

Local authorities in Yemen admit that there is collusion between border guards and smugglers, but claim to lack both the authority and military capability to dislodge smugglers or end their increasingly lucrative industry. Nevertheless, there has been a number of noteworthy interventions by the authorities to release abducted migrants and crack down on smuggling/trafficking networks along the coast. Yemeni coastguards have also been involved in search and rescue operations when boats carrying migrants capsize in their waters.

National immigration laws and policies

As an increasingly favoured country of transit for migrants from the Horn of Africa, Yemen’s mixed migrant population has grown over the last decade and this population is vulnerable to trafficking, forced labour and kidnapping. However, according to the US State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons 2014, the Yemeni government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking, forced labour and sexual exploitation and has made no discernable effort to do so. The report further mentions that the Yemeni government and international NGOs estimate that there are approximately 1.7 million child laborers under the age of 14 in Yemen, some of whom are subjected to forced labor. Yemeni girls are subjected to sex trafficking both within the country and in Saudi Arabia. Civil society organizations report that as a result of the deteriorating economic situation in Yemen, particularly in the north, sex trafficking of Yemeni children increased during 2012 and 2013. In addition, some sources report that the practice of chattel slavery continues in Yemen.

The laws against trafficking in persons are to be found in the Yemeni Penal Code of 1994 and the Child Rights Act. However, the law does not explicitly prohibit debt-bondage or other forms of forced labour and sexual exploitation.

Although the on-going conflict has hampered any attempts by the government in taking measures to combat trafficking in persons in the past year, the government in 2013 and 2014 set up an anti-trafficking unit and drafted an anti-trafficking law that is pending enactment. With the intent to encourage regional coordination and cooperation, in 2013, the Yemeni Government also hosted a Regional Conference on Asylum and Migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen. The direct outcome of the conference was the Sana’a Declaration and its follow-up mechanism which addresses refugee and migration issues and calls for the strengthening of existing mechanisms to address smuggling and human trafficking.

National laws

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

International conventions: Yemen is the only country in the Arab peninsula which 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. Current Yemeni legislation does not cover all forms of exploitation indicated in the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. In addition, the Government has not acceded to the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR Convention)

National legislation (asylum): Yemen’s legal framework is based on Islamic/Shari’a law and the Koran. Yemen has not yet incorporated its obligations under the 1951 Convention to enact national refugee-specific legislation. Sources of national law governing the treatment of asylum seekers or refugees in Yemen remain limited to Article 46 of its Constitution which states that 'no political refugee shall be extradited'. The absence of refugee legislation means that in legal terms, asylum seekers and refugees are treated no differently from other non-nationals and are, for example, subject to laws pertaining to employment as foreigners. In its 2015 global appeal, UNHCR announced that it would support the Government in its plans to drafting a new Asylum Law and in developing strong legislative mechanisms to counter trafficking.

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 sexual exploitation. There is a draft anti-trafficking law that has yet to be enacted.





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