COVID-19 related restrictions have led to a 90 per cent reduction in migrant arrivals in Yemen between February to June; they also have caused tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants to be stranded on their journeys. These migrants face increasing dangers throughout Yemen—a major transit country on the Horn of Africa-Arabian Gulf migration route—without vital services or a means to return home.
With the route through the country blocked and migrants being forcibly transferred between governorates, at least 14,500 migrants today are estimated to be stranded in Yemen’s Aden, Marib, Lahj and Sa’ada governorates. This figure is a base-line estimate; the actual figure is likely to be much higher.
“For nearly six years, Yemen has been an extremely unsafe place to be a migrant,” said Christa Rottensteiner, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Chief of Mission in Yemen.
“COVID-19 has made this situation worse – migrants are scapegoated as carriers of the virus and, as a result, suffer exclusion and violence.”
IOM works across the Horn of Africa and Arabian Gulf to provide assistance and protection to vulnerable migrants. In 2019, IOM reached nearly 60,000 migrants in Yemen with shelter support, health care, distribution of essential items like hygiene kits, voluntary return assistance and psychosocial support.
Aid agencies like IOM are providing assistance to the stranded migrants, but major funding shortages jeopardize the response, putting lives at risk.
As a reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, migrants in Yemen have been experiencing verbal and physical harassment, increased detention, movement restrictions as well as forced movements to areas far from main urban centres or services. This is in addition to the abuses many already endure at the hands of smugglers and traffickers—among them exploitation and torture.
“My phone, money, clothes and shoes were all stolen at night, but Yemenis give us money to buy food and water,” said Dereje*, an Ethiopian migrant stranded in Aden who spends his nights sleeping on cardboard on the side of the road. He relies on charity from local communities and authorities, as well as assistance from IOM, to survive.
On arrival in Yemen, Dereje explained that he was held by traffickers for almost two months while being tortured as they extorted ransom from his family in Ethiopia. He eventually managed to reach Sana’a, yet soon was forcibly transferred to Aden.
Most of the stranded migrants are sleeping out in the open or in unsafe abandoned buildings, which puts them at greater risk of exposure to COVID-19. They have little access to basic services like food, clean water or health care – a worrying situation given how rife the virus is in Yemen.
“We are all tired. It is hard to sleep on the pavement in the dirt and rain, with cars driving by. Sometimes people come and kick us or hit us with sticks while we are trying to sleep. I was wrong for coming here. We all want to go home,” Dereje added.
The difficulties migrants face in accessing the public health care system are not surprising in a country where only 50 per cent of health facilities are fully functional and struggle to respond to rising health needs.
“Migrants in Yemen are living in fear; we are receiving increased requests for return assistance, which IOM cannot provide due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Ultimately, the safe and dignified return of any stranded migrant who requests it must be facilitated,” said IOM’s Rottensteiner.
“Local communities and authorities are supporting these migrants, but they are under tremendous stress themselves. Stranded migrants must be provided health care and other vital services. IOM is providing this assistance wherever possible, but our 2020 Yemen crisis appeal is alarmingly 50 per cent underfunded, greatly impacting our ability to support vulnerable communities,” she concluded.
Earlier in 2020, IOM launched an appeal for USD 155 million to support over 5.3 million people by the end of the year. Without urgent funds, over 2.5 million displaced Yemenis and migrants will be left alone to face the devastating fall out of nearly six years of conflict and the worsening COVID-19 outbreak. Read more about IOM’s Yemen appeal here.
Background on the Migration Route
In 2019, over 138,000 migrants arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa, according to IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM). Migrants predominantly from Ethiopia travel through Djibouti or Somali to reach Yemen, hoping to eventually make it to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) in search of work opportunities unavailable at home.
The largest number of arrivals in 2019 were recorded in April (18,320) and May (18,904) — a time of the year when there are good sea conditions in the Gulf of Aden and a perceived higher level of charity due to Ramadan. This April, there were only 1,725 migrant arrivals in Yemen while in May, 1,195 were recorded. This COVID-19 related decrease continued into June when there were 749 arrivals