Yemen’s Instability Casts Migrants Further Adrift

By Owen Daniels, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

On Saturday, December 7, 2014, a small boat set out from the Horn of Africa bound for the Yemeni port of Mocha. Seventy Ethiopians, hoping to pass through the country in search of employment abroad, had anxiously packed onto a trafficker’s vessel. As they neared their destination the weather began to turn, and before long strong winds and rough waves capsized the boat. Despite the valiant efforts of search and rescue teams, all the African migrants aboard perished. Yemen’s interior ministry set about tracking down the boat’s owner; unfortunately, this small step pinpoints only one symptom of a larger illness. Human trafficking is a malaise endemic to Yemen that thrives on political instability, official indifference, and low-level governmental compliance. As the country has plunged into unrest caused by the recent military activities of the Houthi group, migration and trafficking trends to Yemen have been dangerously exacerbated.

Yemen is the gateway through which many desperate migrants from the Horn of Africa pass to find work. African migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Djibouti are drawn to the oil-rich Gulf monarchies, and their motivation is not hard to see: Ethiopia’s annual GDP per capita of $498 USD was ninth lowest in the world in 2013, and its east African neighbors fared only marginally better. Migrants seek an escape from life under repressive regimes and the chance to earn remittances to support loved ones back home. Driven by this combination of desperation and hope, 364,000 people headed east across the Red Sea between 2011 and 2014. But before they can seek employment, migrants face a host of obstacles that many are unable to overcome.

Migrants who survive the harrowing trip from east Africa across the Red Sea are often greeted by gunmen awaiting their arrival on shore, demanding payment for passage. Others are held by government officials until they can be sold to traffickers for bribes. Migrants who cannot pay their way out of traffickers’ clutches are taken to torture camps like Haradh, just south of the Saudi border. Here they are brutalized, raped, or sometimes killed while their families try to scrape together a ransom payment. Migrants who survive the camps are left several unenviable options. The poorest remain in Yemen to beg and seek work; others pay to be smuggled past checkpoints by traffickers, who bribe the meagerly-paid border guards. Some flee for the border on their own, and still others, resigned, return to Africa.

Political unrest allows migrants to make it into Yemen in larger numbers, giving traffickers opportunities for increased hostage-taking and extortion. Yemen saw increased immigration rates beginning in 2011 as Arab Spring protests forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh out of office and rose rapidly until 2013, when Saudi and Yemeni policy changes slowed the pace of migration. With help from international organizations, Saudi Arabia repatriated nearly 200,000 undocumented African migrants from 2013 to early 2014. In Yemen, the National Dialogue Conference that aimed to reshape the country’s post-Saleh political scene was accompanied by stability and the repatriation of nearly 8,000 undocumented migrants.

This was all before the Houthis arrived on the scene. Beginning in July 2014, the Houthi group initiated a political and military campaign that has spread outward from the north. Outsiders to Yemen’s political scene, the Zaydi Muslim Houthis fought six wars against Saleh’s regime starting in 2004 and participated in the Arab Spring protests. Under Hadi, the first and only President of Yemen in the post-Saleh era, the Houthis have agitated for greater political representation and against fuel subsidy cuts. The Houthis’ military campaign that began against tribal and militia groups in the north culminated in their capture of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a in September. Houthi fighters set up checkpoints, seized state ministries, and dictated Hadi’s prime minister. Their unpopular occupation of Sana’a and other cities has inspired protests from government officials and citizens alike, and also sparked deadly clashes with al-Qaeda and tribesmen that threatens to plunge the country into civil war. On top of all this, northern dysfunction has led to renewed protests in Yemen’s restive south, which was once independent and views itself as better off without the north.

Houthi-driven chaos has effectively cancelled out 2013’s migration reversals. From January to November 2014, 82,680 Africans reached Yemen. As of September an estimated 75% had been kidnapped and ransomed. RMMS, which tracks migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, recorded its highest three month migration totals in the last seven years from July to September. This period covers early Houthi agitation through the capture of Sana’a, and excludes the group's escalation against al-Qaeda in October and November. As the Houthis have tried to consolidate control over new parts of the state after September 2014, the number of migrant arrivals exceeded 33,000. Over 11,000 reached Yemen’s shores in November alone, a 447% increase from the same time last year, and at least 2,440 of these were taken hostage. Tragically but unsurprisingly, this has also been the deadliest year off Yemen’s coast: more migrants have died at sea than in the previous three years combined. The number of deaths is currently over 240, which is remarkable given that traffickers have a great interest in the survival of their future hostages.

The Houthi uprising has overburdened the state’s security apparatus and largely overshadowed gradual governmental progress against migrant trafficking. There are a number of steps Yemen’s government could take to bolster anti-trafficking practices, including raising public awareness, increasing cooperation with Saudi Arabia, cracking down on corruption, and improving holding facilities for migrants. However, with resources already strained, devoting increased funding to combat trafficking and build capacity will be incredibly difficult. This does not even account for the internal trafficking of Yemeni citizens, especially women and children. Action on the part of the international community is a must so long as Yemen remains internally unstable.

Until Yemen can get its own house in order and crack down on human trafficking, migrants to its shores will remain adrift on dangerous tides.