Desperate Determination: A record number of migrants arrive in Yemen in 2016

A record number of arrivals in Yemen

With one more month until the end of the year and despite the ongoing war in Yemen, a record number of migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa have arrived in Yemen in 2016. Never, since monthly monitoring of migrant arrivals started in 2006, have so many migrants arrived in Yemen in one year.

As of the end of November 2016, 111,504 migrants and refugees are estimated to have arrived in Yemen in 2016. This number surpasses the previous record of 2012, when a total of 107,532 migrants were estimated to have arrived in Yemen. Among the arrivals in 2016 are 92,768 Ethiopians (83%) and 18,736 Somalis, who travel overland to the coastal towns of Obock (Djibouti) and, primarily, Bossaso (Puntland, Somalia) assisted by smugglers to cross the Red Sea or Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

The situation in Yemen

Amidst all focus on the European ‘migration crisis’, this ongoing migration flow of migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen (and in most cases onward to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf States) is often neglected, but all the more remarkable given the current situation in Yemen:

  • Escalating conflict since March 2015 has created a vast protection crisis. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), as of November 2016, an estimated 18.8 million people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance of some nature, including 10.3 million who are in acute need.
  • Furthermore, according to Yemen’s Taskforce on Population Movement, almost 2.2 million people remain internally displaced in Yemen as of October 2016. The country also hosts close to 270,000 registered refugees, over 90% of which are Somalis.
  • Due to the conflict, over 180,000 (return) migrants and refugees fled Yemen to neighbouring countries. Around 90,000 people fled to neighbouring Oman and Saudi Arabia and over 90,000 arrived in the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan), resulting in bi-directional flows between the Horn of Africa and Yemen.
  • Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 160 out of 188 countries on the United Nations Human Development Index.
  • Migrants arriving in Yemen are extremely vulnerable to being targeted during every phase of the journey, from the coast to the Saudi border, by a range of actors who continue to exploit migrants, kidnap them and keep them in isolated camps where they are tortured to elicit ransom payments from their families. This has been a chronic vulnerability facing migrants and refugees arriving in Yemen for at least the last five years.
  • In contrast to a previous more liberal attitude to migrants and refugees in Yemen, the new regime in Yemen have adopted a policy of low tolerance to all migrants and have started to deport them. In October 2016, for example, hundreds of Ethiopian migrants were deported back to Djibouti. At least 24 migrants are confirmed to have died during these recent deportations.

Yet, despite the conflict, the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation and these already complex and dangerous migration dynamics, Ethiopian migrants (and asylum seekers), who comprise the majority (approximately 85%) of these flows, are still determined to make the crossing to Yemen. Not many intend to stay in Yemen though. Almost all Ethiopian migrants clearly express the intention to move onwards to Saudi Arabia.

Impact of the Yemen conflict on other migration routes

When the conflict in Yemen escalated in March 2015, it was expected that the flow of migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa heading to Yemen would decrease and, at least to some extent, divert to other destinations, such as Europe or South Africa. However, the flow to Yemen did not decrease but actually increased, and if any diversion of the flows occurred, it has been to a very limited extent only. As of September 2016, 3,109 Ethiopians arrived in Italy, compared to 2,634 in the whole of 2015. Even though this constitutes a relatively strong increase – and the actual number of Ethiopians may be higher since some Ethiopians pretend to be Eritrean upon arrival in Europe, the total numbers remain very low by comparison. On the southern route out of the Horn of Africa there are no indications of an increased number of Ethiopian migrants arriving in South Africa. While the most recent reliable estimates date back to 2009, when it was estimated approximately 10,000 Ethiopians were arriving in South Africa every year – an upcoming RMMS briefing paper estimates that this number is actually slightly lower now.

Drivers fuelling continued migration to Yemen

Why are these, primarily Ethiopian, migrants still so desperately determined to migrate to Yemen, despite the situation described above? Anecdotal evidence indicates that only a small minority is not aware of the ongoing war in Yemen. Representatives from the Ministry of Interior in Yemen – recently interviewed as part of ongoing research by RMMS – attribute the increased flows from Ethiopia to Yemen to the complete breakdown of Yemen’s central government institutions, including border control mechanisms that were already overburdened before the conflict. Other government officials, interviewed both in Yemen and Djibouti, indicated that there is a perception among migrants that the chaos in Yemen means it will be easier to transit through to Saudi Arabia. This phenomena was and is also seen in Libya where increased civil turmoil (since 2013) has been seen as offering increased opportunities for those in irregular flows.

The current political crisis and nationwide protests in Ethiopia, may contribute to the increased flows. Data collected over the last several months, indicates that the percentage of Ethiopian migrant arrivals in Yemen who self-identified as ethnic Oromo was between 95-98%, up from approximately 64% in 2014. New arrivals in October 2016 consistently reported cases of arbitrary arrest, detention, torture and killings at the hand of government officials in response to the ongoing student protests or involvement (suspected or otherwise) in the Oromo Liberation Front. Finally, in recent months almost all Ethiopian arrivals in Yemen cited the drought in parts of Ethiopia as a reason for migration, which may have further contributed to increased flows.

The fate of Ethiopian migrants arriving in Yemen remains unclear. While the breakdown of state functions has in theory made it easier for smugglers to move migrants from one hub to the next toward Saudi Arabia, heavy fighting along key smuggling routes from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, also made it more difficult, with some migration hubs becoming ‘bottle necks’ , as migrants wait for fighting closer to the Saudi border to subside. The fact that migrants continue to flow into Yemen and are assumingly still transiting through Yemeni territory to Saudi Arabia, however, not only highlights the determination of these migrants, it also shows the ability of migrant smuggling networks to regroup, adapt, and reorganise their business models, despite a highly volatile security environment.

Rewarded determination

That so many Ethiopians are still making the crossing to Yemen, is a strong indication that most are in fact succeeding in reaching Saudi Arabia. If not, stories of failed attempts would have reached potential migrants back home. It also shows that there is a sufficient number of jobs available for migrants in Saudi Arabia who are rewarded for their determination. Finally, it indicates that Saudi Arabia, despite the large scale deportation of over 165,000 Ethiopian migrants over the course of four months in 2013/14, is once again tacitly allowing Ethiopian migrants back in. There are no clear indications that the drivers of this migration will change any time soon. In fact, continued and rapid growth of the Ethiopian economy will initially lead to higher numbers of Ethiopian migrants leaving their country. If even the war in Yemen does not deter them from making the crossing to Yemen, it is likely that similar or even higher numbers of migrants and refugees from Ethiopia will continue to embark on these perilous journeys to Yemen and the Gulf States for years to come.

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