Air strike in Sana'a

Trapped in Yemen

Long time, Yemen was mainly a stop-over for African migrants to the Gulf states. With the war in Yemen entering its second year, migratory flows have reversed. While thousands – East Africans and Yemenis – flee the country, many remain trapped in the humanitarian and political disaster on the Arabian Peninsula.

This article is part of our “Migration & Transformation” series. Many governments and civil societies in developing and transition countries are confronted with the influx of larger numbers of displaced people. BTI experts and journalists investigate the political, economic and social challenges facing host countries such as Kenya, Lebanon, Pakistan, South Africa and Turkey. The authors identify problems and problem-solving strategies on the ground and assess multilateral responses.

For decades, Yemen has been a transit country for East Africans, with dozens of them drowning on their way across the Red Sea every year. As Yemen is the poorest Arab state, most migrants meant to move on to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Many ended up in the care of international organizations with the Yemeni side providing plots of land for refugee camps and basic infrastructure. Although racism and exploitation clearly are pressing and the chances of entering the small formal labor market have been very low, Yemen has overall been more hospitable to African migrants than any of its oil-rich neighbors.

However, since the beginning of the Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen in March 2015, chances for Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans to safely make it to a Gulf state via Yemen have reached an all-time low. Many migrant workers and refugees, however, have ignored this fact. While the United Nations’ Refugee Agency (UNHCR) records over 260,000 mostly African refugees, nearly 100,000 East Africans arrived in Yemen by boat in 2015 alone. Two thirds arrived since March 2015 when the conflict began, the UNHCR says.

As the new Yemen report of the Bertelsmann Transformation Index shows, the rising numbers of refugees puts additional strain on Yemen’s already weak public administration – one of the least developed in the world. “The provision of services cannot keep up with the population growth and the influx of refugees,” the report warns.

Yemen is no safe haven for refugees

The violent power-struggle in Yemen takes place between an alliance of rebels, consisting of the Houthis and forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Salih, and the internationally recognized transitional government of President Abduh Rabbuh Mansour Hadi, who fled the capital Sanaa in January 2015 and invited Saudi Arabia to intervene militarily.

In the absence of reliable reports, videos on the internet reveal deplorable conditions of refugees trapped on the southern side of the Saudi-Yemeni border, which Saudi Arabia has been trying to fortify in recent years. In March 2015, a Saudi airstrike even hit a refugee camp in the northern town of Harad, killing dozens of refugees.

All conflict parties violate international humanitarian law, but the High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that “coalition airstrikes appeared responsible for a disproportionate share of this destruction”. Apart from rebel bases and weapon stores, Saudi airstrikes also hit private houses, factories (such as dairy products, water and cement), weddings, schools and hospitals (including three facilities run by Doctors Without Borders) and other infrastructure. There are reports about the use of cluster bombs. Medical supplies, food and fuel imports to Yemen are under Saudi control and cut down to the minimum – and below. In February 2016, the Saudi authorities confiscated a ship chartered by the World Food Programme because of undeclared goods.

Meanwhile, the rebels have placed thousands of mines, occupied and besieged cities, arrested political activists, bombed residential areas in Yemen and sent Scud missiles across the border to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi government works with the assumption of massive Iranian support for the rebels, but it is more likely that former president Ali Abdallah Salih put enough money aside during his 33 year rule to finance the defeat of his successor.

One year into the operation “Decisive Storm”, relabled into “Restoring Hope”, the Saudi war efforts were neither decisive, nor did they restore hope. The only winners are militant organizations such as al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the so-called Islamic State (IS).

More than 20 out of Yemen’s population of 25 million are in need of humanitarian aid. The UN report about 3,000 civilians killed and tens of thousands injured. Sanaa has been out of electricity for 5 months. Attempting to instigate sectarian strife as in Iraq, Sunni militants – many of them from abroad – have killed hundreds of civilians by attacking mosques and worshippers of the Zaydi school in a country where Shi´i Zaydis and Sunni Shafi`is used to pray together.

About 10% of Yemenis have been internally displaced

Unsurprisingly, this war produced yet another type of refugees. According to the United Nations’ Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) up to 2.5 million Yemenis – about 10% of the population – have been internally displaced so far. They have few options for leaving the country either because of lack of means or because of the increasingly restrictive visa policies of their brotherly Arab countries and the fact that almost all foreign embassies in Yemen are closed.

Nevertheless, creative and experienced with hardships, many Yemenis did find a way out. They mainly went to Egypt and Jordan, but also to East Africa including Somalia, sometimes using the same means of transportation as the African refugees, just the other way round. A small portion of mainly well-educated Yemenis made it to Europe, the United States or the Far East.

UN agencies estimate that about 170,000 Yemenis have managed to leave the country since the beginning of the war. The damage this brain-drain is doing to the economy adds to that done to the infrastructure, already in dire need of heavy investment before the air raids, and the damage to the underdeveloped private sector.

With the war in Yemen, migratory flows have thus reversed: East Africans and Yemenis who flee the country now for the first time outnumber those who use Yemen as a stop-over to the Gulf states.

No money, no war?

With Western media focussing on Syria, the international community is slow to react to this political and humanitarian disaster, which propells Yemen into the dark ages. Many aid agencies have pulled out, leaving the door wide open to those who spread anti-western propaganda, not only al-Qaida and IS but also the conflict parties. President Hadi seems absorbed by efforts to ensure his own survival and possible return to the capital at the cost of a war that is wrecking the country’s society and economy – including basic social security networks provided by family, village communities and tribes.

Meanwhile, his main ally, the Saudi government, is struggling with high expenses for domestic subsidies, the military intervention in Yemen and support for regional governments while the oil price dropped below 30 USD per barrel and youth unemployment is high. If Saudi Arabia does not cut spending, the state coffers could be empty by 2020, according to the International Monetary Fund. Massive immigration – whether East-Africans or Yemenis – is the last thing Saudi Arabia needs, but its actions point the other way.

Worst case, Yemen has to wait until the conflict parties run out of money. Best case, the international community takes off the velvet gloves when dealing with the conflict parties.

Iris Glosemeyer is a political scientist and specialized in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula. For developments in Yemen prior to spring 2015 see the Yemen report of the BTI 2016.



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