“Yemen’s conflict is getting so bad that some Yemenis are fleeing to Somalia,” read a recent headline at the Vice News website. The article mentions that 32 Yemenis, mainly women and children, made the trip to Berbera, a port town in Somaliland (and not Somalia). Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have crossed the Gulf of Aden since the outbreak of the Somali civil war in 1991. But now the tide seems to have turned. Yemen has become a war zone, as a coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia bombs the country in an attempt to stop the Houthis, an insurgent movement opposed to the government, from gaining control over the entirety of Yemeni territory. But, instead of protecting the Yemeni population, these attacks have created more chaos, despair and destruction.

The situation is especially bad in Aden, Yemen’s main port, strategically located near Bab al-Mandab, the strait connecting the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea. Street fighting in Aden has intensified, mainly between the city’s inhabitants, on one side, and the Houthis and army units loyal to ‘Ali ‘Abdallah Salih, Yemen’s former president, on the other. There is no water available any longer, electricity is intermittent and food shortages are very serious. Life in Aden is unbearable without water and electricity, as the climate is very hot and humid. People are slowly starving. Those who can are trying to escape, but many do not have the opportunity.

In other parts of the country, the situation is deteriorating, too, with civilians being the main victims of this useless war. A camp of internally displaced people near the Saudi Arabian border was mistakenly bombed, killing many people. A dairy near the port town of Hudayda was targeted, killing dozens of workers inside, and recently another factory was hit. A family of seven people in Yemen’s capital of Sanaa was killed in an air raid. And these are just a few of the stories. Many residents have fled to their ancestral villages or sought refuge elsewhere. Shops in the capital of Sanaa are closed, and water is running out. There are long queues at fuel stations, and diesel is no longer available. Those who have stayed behind describe the city as a ghost town.

On April 12, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) organized its first charter flight during the crisis, evacuating 141 “third-country nationals” from Sanaa. People with certain nationalities, such as Indian and Chinese, were flown to safety with the assistance of their governments. According to the IOM, 160,000 third-country nationals remain stranded in Yemen. The organization is also helping Yemenis who were on their way to Yemen when the airstrikes started and who are stuck at airports all over the world. Thousands of Yemenis are separated from their families, anxious to go home or desperate to leave the country. And yet, it seems to be easier to evacuate foreigners than to help Yemenis in their own country. It took days before the first airplane bearing humanitarian aid was able to land.

I am thinking of all the migrants who came to Yemen fleeing oppression, violence and destitution in the Horn of Africa. Most of them hoped to find work on the Arabian Peninsula, and used Yemen as a transit country. Since 2011 an increasing number of Ethiopians have crossed the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, outnumbering Somalis as new arrivals. One of the reasons was that brokers and smugglers were exploiting the weakened border controls and rule of law in Yemen. They convinced Ethiopians to migrate via Yemen, promoting it as an easy way to reach Saudi Arabia. Many were kidnapped upon arrival in Yemen, detained in “torture camps” and only released after having paid a ransom. I can only hope that IOM will also repatriate the thousands of undocumented Ethiopians and Somalis in Yemen, but I fear for their fate. According to a new UN report, there were still Ethiopian migrants arriving in Yemen after the start of the airstrikes.

The current situation marks a grim new phase in Yemen’s migration history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Yemeni men migrated to the Horn of Africa, escaping the bad economic and political situation at home. They often returned to Yemen in the 1960s and 1970s, after the establishment of the Yemen Arab Republic in the north and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south. It is more than ironic that nowadays Yemenis have to flee to the Horn of Africa again.

How to cite this article:

Marina de Regt "A Grim New Phase in Yemen’s Migration History," Middle East Report Online, April 15, 2015.

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