As Yemen has been ravaged by nearly seven years of war, Yemenis are increasingly embarking on treacherous, transnational journeys. The multilayered crisis in the country—accompanied by the closure of foreign embassies and airports, and visa restrictions—made migration both harder and more thinkable. Unlike the mass deaths in the Mediterranean Sea, the lethal border crossings in the Indian Ocean rarely make headlines. And as in the case of lives lost in the Mediterranean, the tragedies in the Indian Ocean are also underwritten by Europe’s history of colonial conquest and are a testimony to its imperial present.

People fleeing violence in Yemen arrive by ship at the port of Bosasso in Somalia, 2015. Feisal Omar/Reuters

Between 2018 and early 2019 dozens of Yemenis navigated the waters of the Indian Ocean on wooden fishing boats to reach one particular archipelago. The island of Mayotte—a French colony between Madagascar and Mozambique that became an overseas department of France in 2011—has been the European Union’s outermost region since 2014. The migrants left Yemen many months prior to their boat journey, flying to transit countries in the region, such as Egypt, Jordan and Sudan, where they looked for jobs and ways to travel elsewhere. Sami was one of them. He was discouraged by the perils of the Mediterranean crossing and the abuse suffered by his friends in Libya and Morocco. But as word spread that some had made it safely to the French island in the Indian Ocean, he decided to leave Cairo too.

The long trip involved a flight to Madagascar—one of the few countries that grants visas to Yemenis upon arrival—and from there a sea crossing of the Mozambique Channel that cost between $1,700 and $3,000. Sami sailed for 28 hours, crammed into a small boat with 50 other people, until they reached an uninhabited island, whose name he did not know.  He spent five days there, with no food or water, waiting for smugglers to arrive. The final leg of his journey lasted ten hours but felt like an eternity: As the rain filled the wooden skiff Sami had to bail water out of the boat with his hands. Upon arrival, wretched and dehydrated, Sami collapsed on Mayotte’s shores. His companions, while running away from the border police, assumed he was dead. This fate would not have been unusual, as every year hundreds of migrants die trying to reach the French outpost. Others who make it are typically detained and speedily deported. Sami would soon learn that those who manage to stay on the island are abandoned under abominable conditions, deprived of the rights and protections that France is obliged to provide to asylum seekers.

Odysseys through the Indian Ocean are not new for Yemenis, but they did not always look like this. Mayotte—before colonial fragmentation—was one of the four islands of the Comoros Archipelago (along with Grande Comore, Mohéli and Anjouan) that seafarers from southern Yemen frequently visited in the past. Sultans of the Hadhramaut region in southern Yemen even ruled them at some point in the seventeenth century. As anthropologist Engseng Ho traces in his seminal book, The Graves of Tarim, Hadhramis—merchants, religious figures, pilgrims and adventurers—had been traversing the Indian Ocean continuously since the sixteenth century, reaching destinations that straddle East Africa, India and the islands of Southeast Asia.

Odysseys through the Indian Ocean are not new for Yemenis, but they did not always look like this.
The Indian Ocean at that time was connected through trade routes, and Yemen’s port cities of Aden and Mocha were crucial nodes in this maritime trade. But for Yemenis this oceanic realm was also a network, knitted together through intimate encounters, kinship and cultural connections and exchanges that were sustained by intergenerational ties to their homeland and other locations.[1] Their movement was generative of transnational communities of “local cosmopolitans,” as Ho calls them.

The contemporary wave of Yemeni migration at times evokes these geographies of the past and points to the emergence of new transnational networks, ties of solidarity and care forged on the move as well as forms of knowledge that travel across borders. But this migration also tells the story of travel on very different terms: It speaks of fractured experiences of mobility and of border violence that accompanies Yemenis along their ways. Following Yemeni footsteps also brings into focus the expanding contours of the European border regime and—as in the case of maritime journeys through the Indian Ocean—elucidates the invisible geography of the migration crisis, far beyond Europe’s immediate shorelines.


Global Migration and the Politics of Immobilization


The most recent wave of Yemeni migration is largely south to south, often heading to places of historical diasporas. Approximately 350,000 have traveled to Djibouti and Somalia. Thousands have fled to Malaysia and slightly smaller numbers to Indonesia, both of which have significant creolized populations that historically hail from the region of Hadhramaut. Yemenis continue to migrate to neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia, but there are also rapidly growing numbers of Yemenis in Egypt, Sudan and Jordan. These are the countries that are easiest to enter for reasons of geography, familiarity and accessible visas. Actual numbers are often difficult to obtain as only a small portion of Yemenis register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Egypt, for example, is believed to host between 500,000 and 700,000 Yemenis but there are fewer than 10,000 registered Yemeni asylum seekers in the country.

Although most Yemenis on the move navigate and settle across the countries of the Global South, they also increasingly attempt further journeys to Europe, via different and shifting routes. According to the numbers provided by Eurostat, there has been a steady rise of asylum applications lodged by Yemenis across Europe: 3,810 Yemenis applied for asylum in 2019, compared to 1,600 in 2015 and 535 applications in 2012. Most of those who make it to Europe are unaccompanied men but married couples, families with children and single women are arriving too. Given that there are over 4 million internally displaced persons in Yemen, the number of Yemeni refugees may seem low. Yet, considering the elaborate work of the European border regime to keep unwanted migrants out and the myriad types of violence Yemenis endure on their routes, it is not surprising that relatively few have reached Europe.

Considering the elaborate work of the European border regime to keep unwanted migrants out and the myriad types of violence Yemenis endure on their routes, it is not surprising that relatively few have reached Europe.
Yemenis are not targeted specifically but the Western view of Yemen—reduced to an al-Qaeda base through the lens of insecurity—reinforces the idea that Muslim migrants and refugees pose a potential terrorist threat, which enables the European Union’s increasingly restrictive immigration measures. Many of my research participants suffered from the abuses of border police and spent time in detention facilities in Libya, Turkey and Egypt, all funded by the EU to prevent asylum seekers from ever reaching its shores. Currently, dozens of Yemenis are stranded along the Balkan route in Bosnia and Serbia and regularly pushed back by police in Croatia and Hungary. Even closer to home, Yemeni mobility is obstructed with Western aid: Oman’s border fence is built with the money from the US military budget and the Saudi border police receives training from Germany. Additionally, there is the political, military and logistic support for the war efforts of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen provided by the world’s wealthiest nations. Simply to leave the country Yemenis must traverse warscapes of battlegrounds, airstrikes and checkpoints. While some manage to fly out via Seiyun airport in Hadhramaut, many take land routes to Oman and Saudi Arabia or a sea route to Djibouti.

The politics of immobilization means that for the majority of migrants it takes protracted waiting, multiple stops and dozens of attempts, sometimes years-long, before they reach Europe. Others never make it. Afrah Suhail, the founder of Lamar Initiative—a network of Yemeni women in the diaspora—described the continuum of violence that accompanies people’s movement as follows: “Those who leave Yemen are broken by all they had experienced in the country. But leaving does not cure you, for most of the journeys are traumatic, they leave people even more broken, broke and vulnerable.”[2]


Experiences of Europe’s Necropolitics


Arriving in Europe does not mean that refugees’ journeys are over, nor that harm ends at Europe’s edges. While many European countries grant protection to Yemeni asylum seekers, some like France are more reluctant, which results in lengthy appeals. Asylum claims by Yemenis from Houthi-controlled areas of the country are routinely rejected on the basis that the regions they left are considered safe. In many cases Yemeni asylum seekers are simply not believed: The rejection letters describe their accounts of threats, witnessed violence and escape as unbelievable, incoherent or lacking in detail.

Yemenis on the move experience first-hand the racial logic of migration management, where the movement for some is contingent on the containment and immobilization of others. The case of Mayotte—where 30 Yemenis are stranded—clearly illustrates this tension. While Mayotte promotes its sandy white beaches, welcoming capital and tourists, it also holds France’s largest detention center and deports the highest number of people from the country, almost 30,000 per year, among them unaccompanied children.

While Mayotte promotes its sandy white beaches, welcoming capital and tourists, it also holds France’s largest detention center and deports the highest number of people from the country, almost 30,000 per year, among them unaccompanied children.
Although Mayotte is over 6,000 miles away from Paris, European border control here is not outsourced to non-European spaces. Instead, border militarization is taking place within the context of what Françoise Vergès calls the “mutilated cartography” of the French Republic, molded by its history of colonialism and slavery.[3] The exceptional migration regime of the island is based on racial hierarchies and colonial legacies that disregard pre-existing realities of movement in the Indian Ocean and foreclose non-white mobility.

To dissuade migrants, the French administration exempts asylum seekers in Mayotte from rights and protections granted in metropolitan France, such as access to financial support, housing, proper health care and legal assistance. Left to fend for themselves, they cannot work, and their residency permits will not allow them to leave the island. In research interviews Yemenis described their condition on the island as a form of “slow death” and interpreted the state neglect as a measure of “administrative war” launched against them. Khaled, who has been in Mayotte for almost three years, a large portion of which he spent homeless, confessed how uncertainty paired with abject living conditions had devastating consequences on his body and mind. “I swear, I would rather have died in Yemen from bullets than die here slowly every day,” he said. “Dying in Yemen would have been more dignified. Since I arrived, I have been living in torment: cut off from everything meaningful, cut off from my children and family, deprived of work, deprived of the simplest pleasures of life.”[4] Khaled left Yemen after someone opened fire on his family car near the city of Dhamar. But when he recounted his story during an interview with OFPRA (French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless Persons), it was deemed doubtful, and his claim was subsequently rejected. Khaled appealed the decision in November 2019 but is still waiting to hear from the court. Experiences like his of protracted, systematic abandonment are an apt illustration of postcolonial necropolitics: a mode of governing through neglect that bestows upon disposable populations “the status of the living dead.”[5]


Yemeni Dreams


Hajar, a mother of three living in the hotspot, or refugee reception area, near Pili village on Kos Island in Greece, recounted how she told friends in Yemen who were contemplating similar journeys to Europe to stay put unless they were ready to suffer. The makeshift tent her husband built, the inedible food they were served, the toilets that lacked water for several days and the lack of care from the camp authorities all made for an unlivable environment. But it also led to the realization that their lives in Europe were considered of little value, as she explained:

When we marched through the mountains [from Iran to Turkey] and when we were on the [Aegean] sea in the rubber boat, we were trying to convince our children this is just an adventure. On the way, we were imagining Europe with the boys: how it looks, how is life there and how we will enjoy ourselves. But we got to the camp, and it was worse than what we had ever encountered (…) My kids are scared in the night. They tell me—you told us we were coming to Europe, what are we doing here? What shall I tell them? I am also asking myself, why did we leave Yemen? At least we had a home there.[6]

The question “why did we leave?” haunts many Yemeni refugees who have found themselves suspended in intolerable conditions. Some Yemenis fled directly from Yemen because they had experienced threats by the Houthis, had their houses destroyed by the fighting in Aden, lost their source of income or simply could not fathom their children growing up amidst the violence and destruction. Among the Yemenis who are slowly settling into Europe, a significant portion come via Saudi Arabia, which they left due to changes in the country’s labor policies and increasing crackdowns on irregular migrant workers.

While geopolitics and devastating war animate Yemenis’ lives, their personal stories and decisions to move cannot be reduced to these forces. Among the refugees are also those whose motives cannot be so tangibly pinpointed: a young man who left mourning his love, a nostalgic revolutionary chasing after a different future, or a woman who dared to free herself from a stifling relationship. As anthropologist Nathalie Peutz observes in her own research with Yemeni refugees in Djibouti, those of mixed origins often leave because of the alienation they endure at home.[7]

If moving is born out of need, necessity and despair, it also reflects gendered aspirations, desires and hope of other possibilities. In research interviews some shared their dreams of unrestrained mobility, more than the desire for settling down. As borders fade for the global elites, they harden for the subaltern: Today ordinary Yemenis have little capacity to move freely and are pushed into expensive and treacherous routes.

A civil servant from Sana’a, whose visa applications were rejected several times, arrived in Greece via the Aegean Sea on a small vessel and justified his clandestine trajectory with the words: “Our passports have no value!”
A civil servant from Sana’a, whose visa applications were rejected several times, arrived in Greece via the Aegean Sea on a small vessel and justified his clandestine trajectory with the words: “Our passports have no value!”[8] He hoped to be granted travel documents that would redress this material inequality and allow him in the future to move between places in safety and dignity. He wanted to spare his children the risks he had to take. In the meantime, his and others’ audacity to move is a critique of global inequalities that cut the world in two, as well as a direct response to the violence back home. Legal scholar Tendayi Achiume describes undocumented border crossings as “decolonial acts” through which equality is enacted rather than requested; some describe it as a form of reparations.[9] This sense of exercising rights and enacting justice is reflected in the words of a Yemeni man who crossed the English Channel on a dinghy: “We do not want anything. We just came here looking for safety, for freedom, for justice. We came because we heard that all are equal here.”[10]


New Diasporas in the Making


Yemeni migration is a project of imagination: of envisioning a better life that is otherwise and elsewhere and dreaming of movement on different terms. But it is also a deeply social endeavor. Many of the Yemeni refugees in Europe are the first in their families to travel beyond the Gulf so they are rarely trying to reach particular destinations. Instead, their decisions on where to go and how to get there are guided by the forms of knowledge that emerge and circulate among Yemenis on the move. As they see and follow each other they exchange stories of border crossings, share contacts and Google maps with marked routes and advice on asylum procedures.

Solidarity and mutual aid are of course not bounded by nationality, but Yemenis seek out and turn to each other. Yemeni migrants have been increasingly engaged in efforts to address their collective rights and needs, such as campaigns to stop Yemeni deportations in England, hunger strikes in refugee camps and raising awareness about what some Yemeni migrant activists call their “forgotten cause.” In Mayotte, Yemenis and other Arab refugees on the island have been protesting the French state’s neglect and demanding long overdue court hearings. There are Yemeni community centers in Cairo, Amman and Kuala Lumpur. Many of these initiatives are led by Yemeni women, like the Lamar Initiative, which tries to build solidarity between Yemeni communities across borders.

Networks of conviviality and care also emerge organically through practices of everyday sociality. During my fieldwork in Athens, Yemeni men shared accommodation and gathered daily for food. Their meals, especially during Ramadan, recalled those of back home with typical Yemeni dishes spread on the floor. In the evenings, the men met in coffee shops and strategized the next stage of their journeys: Some wondered which countries in Europe were the least racist, others wanted to know where the process of family unification moves fastest. Often newly met men became companions on the route, walking legs of the journey across the Balkans together, usually until borders forced them to separate.

These shared experiences of movement and displacement translate into a web of new cross-border connections, ties and networks of support. Yemeni journeys tell a story of suffering and of borders that rupture connections, carve families apart and inflict violence. They unearth how the colonial past shapes the present contours of Fortress Europe. But these journeys also tell of agency, imagination and new social worlds that emerge and expand as Yemenis traverse the continents.


[Bogumila Hall is an assistant professor at the Institute of Mediterranean and Oriental Cultures, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw. Research for this project is funded by the National Science Center, Poland. Project number 2019/35/D/HS3/00038.]





[1] Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim. Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley and Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 2006).

[2] Author interview, April 2021.

[3] Françoise Vergès, The Wombs of Women. Race, Capital, Feminism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020).

[4] Author interview, February 2021.

[5] Achille Mbembe, Necropolitics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019) p. 92.

[6] Author interview, Kos, June 2019.

[7] Nathalie Peutz, “’The Fault of Our Grandfathers:’ Yemen’s Third-Generation Migrants Seeking Refuge from Displacement,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 51 (2019).

[8] Author interview, Athens, June 2019.

[9] E.Tendayi Achiume, “Migration As Decolonization,” Stanford Law Review, 71 (2019).

[10] A letter by a Yemeni asylum seeker in Nappier Barracks in Kent, England, shared by the Kent Refugee Action Network.


How to cite this article:

Bogumila Hall "Yemeni Freedom and Mobility Dreams," Middle East Report Online, August 11, 2021.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This