Why are increasing numbers of refugees and migrants arriving in Yemen?



In late November, the UNHCR announced that in 2016, a total of 105,971 people from the Horn of Africa – predominantly Ethiopia and Somalia – have thus far travelled to Yemen by boat. This figure, the announcement said, is up from 92,446 in 2015 and a comparatively miniscule 25,898 in 2006.

Further data (see Table 1) reveals that there has been a steady increase of so-called ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ (IMAs) from the Horn of Africa into Yemen in the last 10 years.


These figures raise some interesting questions about the complex dynamics of forced migration in the Horn of Africa region and the developing world more broadly. Here, I confront the fact that arrival numbers have continued to increase since 2014, a period coinciding with Yemen’s descent into civil war and humanitarian catastrophe.

Yemen’s most recent civil war began in March 2015, after the Houthis, a Zaydi-Muslim tribal movement based in the Northern stronghold of Saada, took control Sana’a and other important governorates from Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi’s ruling regime months earlier. In response, a Saudi-led international coalition began an unrelenting aerial bombardment campaign to restore the country’s 'legitimate government' to power. The ensuing instability emboldened other tribal, secessionist and Islamist forces to actively pursue power and territory, resulting in greater fragmentation, institutional dysfunction and social breakdown.

Conflict has also precipitated a serious humanitarian crisis. Up to 10,000 have been killed in less than two years and 3.27 million people are internally displaced (IDPs). Military blockades of the Yemen’s airports and ports have left the country on the brink of famine, with 14.4 million people also lacking access to safe drinking water, sanitation or healthcare. UNOCHA estimates that 18.8 out of 27.4 million are in need of some form of humanitarian aid.

Amidst all of this, boats continue to come across the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. Why?

Proponents of ‘pull-factor’ theories of migration would highlight the importance of Yemen’s benefits as a destination country. Yemen has a generous past when it comes to welcoming and offering protection to refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa. It's the only country in GCC to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention; and even today, Somalis are granted prima facie refugee status in the country. Meanwhile, Ethiopians without refugee status dot the country’s more remote governorates, working as herders and on its qat plantations.

But the current situation for pre-existing refugee communities in Yemen is dire. Armed groups do not generally prioritise protection or humanitarian aid to refugee populations and there have been numerous reports of attacks in the last few years. The gradual breakdown of rule of law and the presence of widespread poverty is also forcing many into domestic servitude, drugs smuggling and prostitution in Yemen and across the Gulf.

Yemen has also been a key transit country for those seeking opportunities in the GCC’s lucrative labour markets. And as the steady influx of refugees into Libya over the last five years has shown, political instability and outbreaks of conflict often have no bearing on arrival numbers in transit countries. If places like Libya or Yemen merely serve as launching pads for more permanent destinations, conditions in these countries, however unsafe, matter little.

But recent evidence shows that Yemen’s status as a transit hub may also be in jeopardy. Those refugees who have voluntarily sought passage into the GCC for work have found it increasingly difficult in the last two years. In 2014, Saudi Arabia built a high-tech fence along its border with Yemen. Labour nationalisation has also become an important theme in the Gulf, as the rentiers chart their course into a post-oil future. As such, of the 177,000 people who have fled Yemen since the start of the war, approximately 122,000 are returnees originally from Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan and Djibouti.

There may also be more circumstantial and pragmatic considerations at play when trying to understand increasing flows into conflict-ridden Yemen. Studies have shown how refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa use social networking, smart phones and other new technology to solicit information about challenges – such as kidnapping and physical abuse – along the journey and realities on the ground in Yemen. However, the lack of safer, cheaper and quicker options leave migrants with little choice but to confront these issues. One recent article on Ethiopian migrants travelling to Yemen found that 80% were aware of abuses they would encounter at the hands of smugglers, but were prepared to risk the journey in the face of the alternatives. Not only are death rates for journeys across the Sahara higher, journeys across the desert take weeks and involve negotiating stricter border regimes (Kenya/Ethiopia) or traversing active conflict zones (Sudan). By contrast, citizens of the Horn of Africa states do not need visas to enter Djibouti, from where most journeys to Yemen begin. The lack of border control in Yemen also makes entry significantly easier than most other places.

Finally, ‘push-factors’ in countries of origin have certainly contributed to the increase in arrivals to Yemen. Whereas before 2008, Somalis made the largest proportion of entrants into Yemen, Ethiopians primarily of the Oromo ethnicity, have overtaken them since then. The growing exodus from Ethiopia is likely due to the government’s severe repression of Oromo protests against the absence of redistributive economic policies and an arbitrary ban on labour migration from 2013 to 2015. The fact that Ethiopian refugee inflows have increased across the Horn of Africa, and not just in Yemen, supports the claim that periods of instability in countries of origin can never be ignored.

Ultimately, it's clear that no one set of narratives or policy models can even begin capture the layered but fluid dynamics that underpin various migration flows across the Horn of Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. Attempting to understand the very fact of this complexity may begin to help us, here in Australia, to confront this herculean, global challenge more honestly than we currently do.

Nishadh Rego is the Middle East & North Africa Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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