Paris – Driven by hope for a better life, many African migrants risk their lives attempting to cross dangerous seas and through the war-devastated Yemen to find sanctuary in Saudi Arabia. Facing multiple dangers like drowning, detention, torture, rape and even deportation, thousands are mislead by exploitative smugglers and human traffickers who have no regard for human life, sending them to a battered conflict zone with ruthless militias and abusive authorities.
Many Ethiopians and Somalian migrants embark on the journey by boat across the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea and then through Yemen in the hope of making it to Saudi Arabia. Driven out of their countries due to multiple human rights abuses, economic strain, inadequate infrastructure and lack of employment opportunities, Saudi Arabia and its surrounding Gulf states appear attractive to migrants searching for better employment opportunities. However, many do not realize they are crossing Yemen’s battle zone and if they are lucky enough to continue on to Saudi Arabia, are subjected to what Human Rights Watch calls a ‘systemised deportation machine.’
Despite the ongoing war in Yemen, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), they estimated 92 percent of today’s incoming migrants are Ethiopian nationals, with Somalis making up the rest. Minors make up an estimated 20 percent and many are reported to be unaccompanied.
Undertaking one of the busiest maritime migration routes in the world and unaware of the war in Yemen, once migrants find themselves washed up on the shores, they are met with beatings, kidnappings, rape and other abuses by traffickers known by their Arab pseudonym, ‘Abdul-Qawi,’ which means Worshipper of the Strong. They are notorious for welcoming migrants with automatic rifles and then imprisoning them in confined compounds in the middle of the desert trying to coerce thousands of dollars of ransom money from family members, sadly many are unable to pay as they have either poor families or none at all.
Based on interviews by The Associated Press (AP) and stories from the occasional series, “Outsourcing Migrants,” there have been reports of systematic torture and beatings as almost every migrant who arrives in Yemen is imprisoned. A humanitarian worker following the flow of migrants arriving said, “Out of every thousand, 800 disappear in the lockups.” Migrants suffer from starvation, witness deaths and many are subjected to rape, with AP revealing that women are often subjected to rape by different men each time.
The UNHCR received testimonies from survivors who reported multiple abuses inside detention facilities, especially amongst new arrivals. In a statement by UNHCR’s spokesperson read at a press briefing in 2018 said, “Survivors have described to UNHCR being shot at, regular beatings, rapes of adults and children, humiliations including forced nudity, being forced to witness summary executions and denial of food.”
Furthermore, according to Human Rights Watch, government officials in Yemen have engaged in ill-treatment such as torture, rape and execution of migrants and asylum seekers from detention centers in the Horn of Africa. Armed groups have also been known to recruit African migrants for training in military camps where they earn a mere $100 a month and participate in various Islamist movements.
Despite promises by Yemeni government, little has been done by Yemeni authorities to ensure these practices are stopped and perpetrators are held accountable for their actions. Migrants in trucks pass undetected through military checkpoints as traffickers move them freely by bribing authorities at checkpoints.
Many migrants are not fortunate to escape the destruction in Yemen, but for the ones that are, once at the border of Saudi Arabia they must avoid border guards, well-known for opening fire on many potential migrants. If caught, they are subjected to more systematic abuse from Saudi authorities. Left in inadequate detention conditions with insufficient food and sanitation, migrants are tortured by security forces while they wait to be deported. In a 2017 deportation campaign organized by Saudi Arabia, they found that as many as 500,000 Ethiopians were living illegally in the country. The Interior Ministry of Saudi Arabia said that the police arrested 3.6 million people for violating residency rules, labor laws and border laws.
Once deported, many migrants return to their home country penniless, with no access to food, water or shelter. As many are minors, the majority of them are left to fend for themselves on the streets.
It is important to note that the recent influx of migrants undertaking this dangerous route has been in some measure the result of Europe’s intolerance for refugees. The European Union (EU) began paying Libyan coast guards and militias to block the main route out of East Africa, through Libya and across the Mediterranian into Europe. Furthermore European policies are even making the route to Yemen more difficult and dangerous, as the EU has funded border control crackdowns in Ethiopia and conducted a campaign to stop migrant smugglers. This however, is driving migrants to employ unreliable traffickers, putting them at further risk of abuse and more dangerous paths.
The IOM reported more than 150,000 migrants landed in Yemen in 2018, a 50 percent increase from the 2017. In 2019, more than 107,000 had arrived in Yemen by the end of September, however tens of thousands of migrants are likely to be unaccounted for as many may have been buried in graves along the trail by traffickers.
The 1951 Refugee Convention, which was signed by the member states of the EU, means that by law, European countries are obligated to ensure refugees the following rights: The right to not be punished for illegally entering countries that have signed the treaty. A right to housing, work, education, public assistance, courts and to gain travel documents and identification. Furthermore, the UN said that, “Refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals.”
Government officials in Yemen and Saudi Arabia are doing little to protect African migrants from abuses at the hands of authorities and human traffickers. The humanitarian crisis in Yemen is unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future, therefore the current refugee crisis will only deteriorate further. The governments of these countries must implement sustainable policies that will protect and aid the continued flow of migrants entering Yemen and Saudi Arabia to ensure that the number of victims, at sea, in Yemen and en route to Saudi Arabia will no longer perish.