Issue 61 - Article 6

Leading either to money or the sea: mixed migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen

April 25, 2014
Anna Stein

Located on the south-western tip of the Arabian Peninsula and, at its closest point, a mere 30km from Djibouti, Yemen has long been an important point of transit and destination for migrants from the Horn of Africa. In recent years the numbers of migrants crossing the Red and Arabian seas have been registered in the tens of thousands, with numbers peaking at more than 107,000 in 2012. The majority of migrants are from Ethiopia and Somalia, and make up what is described as a ‘mixed migration flow’. Most do not see Yemen as their preferred country of destination, aiming instead to reach Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States in search of improved economic opportunities. Migrants undertaking a long and hazardous journey to reach Yemen face severe protection challenges en route. On arrival in Yemen many are kidnapped and held for ransom, often suffering terrible physical abuse. The regional nature of this migration flow means that no one country can address its challenges alone: a regional response is required. Initial efforts have been made, but more must be done to address the protection challenges faced by people crossing the Red Sea to the Arabian Peninsula.

What is mixed migration?

The concept of mixed migration has gained in prominence over recent years. However, it remains a contested term, with many definitions and interpretations. At its most basic level, mixed migration can be considered an answer to the migration studies orthodoxy which divides migrants into two, mutually exclusive, categories: ‘voluntary’ or ‘forced’. In more operational terms this division manifests itself as the difference between refugees and asylum-seekers and economic migrants. However, it is increasingly accepted that the factors which drive an individual’s decision to migrate can be highly complex and do not necessarily lend themselves to binary distinction. As an illustration, an economic migrant’s movement would traditionally be classified as ‘voluntary’, but the element of choice may be undermined if they see migration as the only way they can find work and thus provide for their family. Similarly, many forced migrants who have fled their homes as a result of danger and persecution may decide to leave their place of asylum in search of better economic opportunities. On the basis of this decision should these individuals cease to be forced migrants and instead be reclassified as voluntary migrants?

The concept is additionally complicated by a further use for the term, as it can also refer to mixed groups of refugees, asylum-seekers and economic migrants who travel using the same migration pathways and means of transport. The international community’s duties to forced migrants vary from those owed to voluntary migrants in terms of the protection they must provide, reinforcing the importance of the binary classification even while it becomes harder and harder to uphold.

Protection challenges faced by migrants from the Horn of Africa

Yemen is the only state in the Arabian Peninsula which is signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, and it provides Somalis with prima facie refugee status upon arrival. There are believed to be approximately 230,000 Somali refugees currently living in Yemen, all of whom have the right to health and education services. Between 2010 and 2013 it is thought that over 80,000 Somalis arrived in Yemen. However, this figure is dwarfed by the almost 250,000 non-Somalis estimated to have arrived over the same period. UNHCR, New Arrivals in Yemen Comparison 2010 – –2013, December 2013.  The non-Somalis come from countries throughout the Horn of Africa, but the large majority are Ethiopian. Some Ethiopians request asylum upon arrival, but the majority describe their journey as economically motivated. The collection of data relating to mixed migration flows is challenging, largely due to the clandestine nature of irregular migration. As a result it is not known how many migrants remain in Yemen and how many continue their journey onwards to reach their preferred destinations in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf.

Migrants travelling as part of the mixed migration flow to Yemen arrive irregularly, on boats departing from ports in Somaliland, Puntland and Djibouti. These boats are operated by smuggling and trafficking networks, and charge migrants for the crossing. Some migrants begin their journey with the funds necessary to complete it, but others must work en route to earn the money they need to continue. The cost of the passage to Yemen varies according to the point of departure, but in 2012 it was reported to range between $80 and $150. Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, Migrant Smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Yemen: the Political Economy and Protection Risks, June 2013.  The total cost of a journey from point of origin to the preferred destination can be as high as $500. Ibid.  Given the number of migrants departing from the Horn of Africa each year, the financial incentive to engage in smuggling and trafficking is great.

The sea crossing is fraught with hazard, though the data suggests that it is becoming safer, with five people reported dead or missing in 2013 New Arrivals in Yemen Comparison 2010– – 2013.  as opposed to the 1,056 reported in 2008. Danish Refugee Council and Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, Desperate Choices: Conditions, Risks and Protection Failures Affecting Ethiopian Migrants in Yemen, October 2012.  However, new arrivals interviewed in Yemen report high levels of physical and sexual assault in transit, and challenge the accuracy of the reported figures. Arrivals data is collected by interviewing migrants encountered in Yemen. These individuals are asked to provide information on the numbers of migrants travelling with them, and the incidents that they witnessed. This data is then extrapolated to arrive at an estimated total figure. Given that almost all crossings take place under cover of darkness it is entirely possible that both the numbers of migrants and the events which befall them go under-reported. Additionally, if an entire boatload of migrants is lost at sea it is unlikely that their deaths will be recorded. Ibid.  Those migrants who do reach Yemen’s shores and are interviewed sometimes report seeing migrants beaten to death and infants thrown overboard by smugglers.

The protection risks faced by irregular migrants do not end upon arrival in Yemen. Criminal gangs, often working in collusion with smugglers and traffickers, frequently intercept migrants at the Red Sea coast and take them inland, where they are held for ransom and subjected to extreme levels of violence. The criminals’ aim is to extort a ransom payment from the migrants’ families, and as a result they can resort to egregious levels of abuse. Reported actions have included dripping molten plastic onto migrants’ genitalia and gouging out their eyes. Relatives at home are forced to listen to their loved ones being tortured over the phone as an encouragement to find the money to pay for their release. Upon release, most of those who are able to do so continue their journeys north. Periodically, Danish Refugee Council (DRC) teams encounter migrants who have been subjected to brutal physical and sexual abuse and are then released. Despite the provision of medical assistance some do not recover; others go on to suffer permanent disfigurement or blindness. This fate is suffered overwhelmingly by migrants of Ethiopian origin, whereas Somalis largely escape the attentions of the gangs. The reasons for this are unclear, but it is unlikely to be because the kidnappers appreciate the protection provisions made for prima facie refugees.

The plight of female migrants is particularly concerning. High levels of sexual abuse against women are reported at all stages of the journey. At the Migration Response Centre in Obock, Djibouti, staff report female migrants asking for oral contraceptives in an attempt to prevent unwanted pregnancies should they be raped en route. Migrant Smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Yemen.  It should be noted that, while the women believe rape to be likely enough to seek ways to avoid a resultant pregnancy, they do not consider the threat sufficient to deter their onward migration. Even more worrying is the fact that the majority of female migrants seem to ‘disappear’ en route. Male migrants interviewed in Yemen report departing from the Horn of Africa in the company of women and girls, but very few women and girls are encountered in Yemen. The men report that the women are intercepted by traffickers upon arrival and few are seen again. What happens to these missing women is a matter for much concern, and further research is needed.

The future of mixed migration from the Horn of Africa

After three years of steadily increasing arrivals figures, 2013 saw an estimated 65,319 migrants arriving in Yemen, representing a 39% decrease on 2012. UNHCR Yemen, New Arrivals at the Coast 2006– – December 2013, January 2014.  The reasons for this reduction remain unclear. Certainly, it may be possible that whole boatloads of migrants are kidnapped on arrival, never to be encountered by humanitarian actors and therefore not included in the new arrivals data. However, it is highly unlikely that a drop of such a magnitude could be explained by the prevalence of kidnapping alone.

In 2013 Saudi Arabia, the preferred country of destination for the majority of migrants and Yemen’s northern neighbour, instituted a change in its labour and immigration policies. It closed its border with Yemen, stranding many migrants in the northern governorate of Hajjah, and began the expulsion of irregular migrants within its territory. With the border closure prohibiting their onward movement and more people arriving each day, the number of migrants stranded at the Yemeni border crossing at Haradh reached an estimated 25,000 in May 2013. IOM, Situation Report No. 26, 13 May 2013.  With little prospect of reaching Saudi Arabia many thousands of migrants, most of them Ethiopian, opted to return home with assistance from the government of Yemen and the international community. These thousands join the estimated 151,000 who have been deported back to Ethiopia from Saudi Arabia since the end of 2013. IOM, Ethiopian Refugees from Saudi Arabia Top 151,000, 10 January 2014.

For now the flow of migrants has reduced. It may well be that deportees have warned would-be migrants that conditions in Saudi Arabia have become increasingly challenging. It could also be that the stories of torture and abuse en route are deterring others from making the journey. Concerted efforts by the governments of Ethiopia and Djibouti to tackle the smugglers and traffickers and prevent their boats from departing, complemented by increased deterrent activity on the part of the Yemeni Coast Guard, may also be contributing to the reduction. However, it should also be noted that the downward trend is by no means certain or predictable. The estimated number of arrivals in January 2014 was almost double the number reported the previous month. Some migrants interviewed upon arrival in Yemen report a large backlog of migrants in coastal towns such as Obock and Bossaso awaiting their chance for departure.

Mixed migration is, clearly, a regional phenomenon, as much influenced by the social, political and security contexts of the countries of origin as the attractions offered by those of destination. Therefore, interventions which aim to minimise the migration flow – justified on humanitarian grounds, given the protection risks encountered by those who join it – must have a regional dimension. The most recent regional meeting, held in Sana’a in November 2013, resulted in the Sana’a Declaration, which included regional commitments aimed at addressing irregular migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and beyond. In addition, Mixed Migration Task Forces, which bring together all actors involved in mixed migration, have been set up throughout the region, and in Yemen. These regional initiatives are an important first step, as are the recent actions by the governments of Yemen, Ethiopia and Djibouti to tackle irregular population movements. However, as long as the countries of the Horn of Africa remain beset by poverty and insecurity, and smugglers, traffickers and kidnappers can ply their trade in the region with relative impunity, mixed migrants will continue to take their chance following the path that ‘leads either to money or the sea’. Woy kebiru woy kebahiru’. Quote from an Ethiopian focus group participant, Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat.

Anna Stein is Programme Support Specialist, Danish Refugee Council Yemen.


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