New Trend/Old Tactics: War revives brutal smuggler practices in the Gulf of Aden

The office of the United Nation High Commissioner for Human Rights released a damning report this week detailing the scale of violence in Yemen, describing it as the single largest humanitarian crisis in the world. The report called out the international community in an attempt to call attention to the ‘entirely man-made catastrophe’ in Yemen – an overlooked and under-reported conflict affecting millions of people. Since the war in Yemen started two years ago, ‘unrelenting violations of international humanitarian law’ with violations and abuses perpetrated by all sides have left 10,000 dead – including over 1,500 children. It is an intractable war that shows few signs of abating, with over 17 million civilians on the brink of starvation and a broken governance system unable to provide security and services.

In the shadow of the war, another tragedy is unfolding. A steady flow of Ethiopian and Somali migrants are leaving mainland Africa and heading to Yemen in dangerous and often exploitative situations. Travelling with human smugglers they sail across the narrowest points of the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea to arrive in Yemen, largely with the intention to reach Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries in hopes of employment opportunities. Smugglers are seeking to capitalise on the lack of authority in Yemen to move people freely towards the Gulf and to powerful trafficking networks in Yemen.

Since unrest started in Yemen in 2011, the number of migrants entering and crossing the country has increased considerably. Between January 2006 and April 2016, more than 700,000 Somalis, Ethiopians, and Eritreans reportedly crossed from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, with Somalis largely staying in Yemen as refugees and Ethiopians travelling onwards to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. In 2016, new arrivals were estimated to have surpassed 117,000, a record number of arrivals in a single year. According to IOM, more than 55,000 have already arrived in 2017 – 30,000 are under the age of 18, while a third are estimated to be female.

Migrants face dangers along three main routes – the journey to departure points along the Somali and Djibouti coastlines, the boat ride across the sea, and finally through Yemen deserts to settlements and onwards towards Saudi Arabia. The conditions they face are severe and the brutal treatment they endure from smugglers and others is brutal. As regularly reported, it is a journey characterized by abuse, robbery, sexual violence, kidnapping, abduction and in some cases, death.

The conflict itself is another deadly risk to migrants. In March 2017, the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen was responsible for an attack on a boat that killed at least 42 Somali refugees off Yemen’s coast, as concluded by the UN Security Council in a report release in July 2017. However, despite these risks, migrants continue to embark on the journey. They must weigh a harsh cost benefit between the guaranteed dangers of the trip and their hope for employment opportunities they might find in the Gulf.

In August 2017 a fresh danger reappeared, adding renewed risks to the migrant journey. IOM reported that over a two day period in August (9 to 10 August) 280 Ethiopian and Somali migrants were forced off their boats into pitching seas more than a kilometre off shore by smugglers wielding AK-47 weapons. The average age of the migrants on the boats was 16 years old, with many young children and infants on board. Over 70 people are presumed to have died in the two events – many buried by fellow migrants in shallow graves along Yemen’s southern beaches in the Governorate of Shabwa, an area controlled by both Al Qaeda and Hadi forces in recent years.

IOM officials suggest these events indicated a ‘new trend’ developing. However, this ‘new trend’ has been seen before in Yemen. The brutal tactic previously used by smugglers to avoid encounters with Yemeni coast guards and land-based authorities was to force their human cargo to disembark in deep waters along Yemen’s southern and eastern coasts. Few of the Somali and Ethiopian migrants could swim and many drowned – thousands of deaths were recorded between 2008 and 2010. The practice slowed when smugglers realised that migrants were worth more alive – as they could be sold to extortion and trafficking gangs when they reached the shores of Yemen. Successfully bribing coast guards and other enforcement authorities meant that sea-based smugglers and land-based gangs monopolised the hold on incoming migrants and asylum seekers. They treated them as profitable, exploitable commodities – few migrants escaped the kidnapping for ransom and few women escaped rape, while thousands of migrants disappeared entirely.

The collusion between smugglers, officials, traffickers and extortionist gangs has been highlighted in various reports, although Yemeni authorities have done little to curb practices that are ‘hidden in plain view.’ Apart from a few symbolic raids of so-called torture camps where migrants were held, smugglers linked to traffickers and extortionist gangs have operated for years with almost complete impunity.

Now, with the breakdown of authority and in the midst of a harrowing war, all sides are taking harsher anti-migrant positions. Houthis rebels and the Hadi government authorities appear suspicious of migrants, afraid that they could be recruited or exploited by enemy forces. Non-governmental organizations working in Yemen struggle to get permission from authorities to assist migrants and asylum seekers, and a UNHCR project to record and assist new arrivals led by UNHCR (previously 8-10,000 new arrivals every month) stopped in June 2017 after a decade of operations.

There are various factors that may have changed the dynamics and revived the deadly tactic of forcing migrants off boats before reaching Yemen’s shores. Perhaps those currently in charge of the coasts (Al Qaeda in the south, Houthi forces along the east) are less corruptible and refuse to collude with smugglers or land gangs, thereby causing smugglers to fear capture? Perhaps these powers are indeed corruptible but want more than the smugglers are used to sharing? Or, perhaps the authorities believe the rumours that migrants have been hired as mercenaries in the war, or that Somali migrants may be Islamist militants intent on joining jihadists in Yemen, and are cracking down on smugglers. It is possible that these are isolated events or ‘deals’ that went wrong.

Yemen continues to suffer through a violent civil war and Saudi Arabia has begun implementing another forceful purge of irregular migrants, yet still large numbers of Ethiopians and Somalis continue to struggle towards Somali and Djibouti shores to pay smugglers for passage to Yemen. If the smugglers’ fear of contact with Yemeni authorities continues, more tragic events like those we say in August will be repeated. Furthermore, unless the flow of migrants onto smugglers’ boats slows or smugglers are put out of business there will be no way of stopping more deaths.

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