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Refocusing on Yemen: The Regional Refugee and Migration Response Plan

Yemen, plagued by poverty and unemployment, was already fragile as one of the most under-developed countries in the world – and then came war. What started as the popular uprisings in 2011 led to four years of political instability and unrest culminating in the current civil war that started in March 2015. A civil that soon became internationalized through months of aerial bombardment by a coalition of countries against anti-government and rebel forces – now controlling many areas of the country.

The humanitarian impact in terms of food insecurity and displacement has been catastrophic with the United Nations classifying 80 per cent of the population, a staggering 21 million, in need of assistance. In addition to the frustration that they have limited access to so many of the millions needing aid, the international aid community struggles to get the world to pay sufficient attention to the crisis.

Not surprisingly, Yemenis are fleeing the conflict where they can. Most move within their country and by early December 2015 the number of internally displaced was 2.5 million, but some have left the country with most to date fleeing to Saudi Arabia (30,000), while others joined family in Oman (500)or crossing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden towards Africa (22,000). On top of these burdens authorities and the international community already assist over 265,000 registered refugees (mostly Somali) inside Yemen.

Analysis of the movement of refugees and economic migrants between mainland Africa and Yemen vividly illustrate the relevance of the term mixed migration with people moving in both directions across the sea and for different reasons. For Somalis, Ethiopians and Yemeni fleeing the war in Yemen they leave as refugees or returnee, while thousands of others, mainly Ethiopian with some Somalis have continued to move to Yemen predominantly with the aim of reaching Saudi Arabia and livelihood opportunities, despite the Saudi crack down on irregular migration. Some few Ethiopians seek asylum upon arrival in the country in contrast to Somalis who normally always apply as they are recognized as prima facie refugees in Yemen.

A surprising fact of modern mixed migration trends is that civil or international conflicts do not deter migration flows if the country concerned is an important transit country for those on the move. Libya is a clear example where migrants and refugees continuing to pass into the country in their tens of thousands, despite or because of, the political and military turmoil. In addition to the instability, migrants face high levels of abuse including detention, racial abuse and entrenched xenophobia, sexual violence, kidnapping, robbery and death. Many of those passing through Yemen face the same kinds of abuse with a high proportion being taken away on the beaches as they arrive by extortionist gangs. Nevertheless UNHCR estimate more than 71,000 new arrivals have come to Yemen in 2015, 90% of whom are Ethiopians.

For the first time, since March 2015, a significant flow of Yemeni (refugees), returning migrants and returnees [1] have been recorded on the move. The total movement out of Yemen was almost 167,000 as of the end of October 2015, with almost 76,000 moving to the Horn of Africa. Of this total, 52,000 (31%) were Yemeni nationals and 69% were other nationalities, predominantly Somalis and Ethiopians. In what experts in IOM and UNHCR are judging to have all the hallmarks of becoming a protracted political and humanitarian crisis they are now preparing assistance for those that have already fled and for larger numbers in the short to medium term.

Last week (December 9th) IOM and UNHCR joined forces with an additional 7 UN agencies and 48 partners to launch the Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan appealing to the international community to contribute USD94 million to assist an expected 164,000 displaced people during 2016. This appeal is a direct response to these new movements and will operate in tandem with long-standing responses assisting millions of refugees in the region to which the presence of Yemenis is a relatively new addition.

The appeal and response plan not only seeks to meet the need of new refugees and displaced in the Horn of Africa and Yemen region but to highlight the huge humanitarian needs in Yemen itself. As those in need and displaced move in different and sometimes opposite directions, the response and analysis that drives it also illustrates urgently the complexity that characterize mixed migration and forced displacement and the subsequent protection imperative.


[1] This term is used to denote Somali nationals who had acquired refugee status in Yemen and have returned to Somalia since the outbreak of the conflict.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.