In Yemen’s southern port city of Aden, Naser Hamid sits under a palm tree with other Ethiopian refugees to escape the scorching heat of summer. His only concern now is to go back to the country he was so eager to leave behind three years ago.
“All I am thinking of is to return to Ethiopia, my life here has been very miserable,” Naser, 26, told The National.
Thousands of Ethiopian migrants, predominantly from the Muslim Oromo ethnic group, are smuggled to Yemen every year, risking their lives in packed small fishing boats to reach Saudi Arabia.
Such dangerous journeys from the Horn of Africa to Yemen could take days by sea. Hundreds of migrants have lost their lives taking the perilous journey.
“We spent two days in the sea. There were more than 120 migrants on a small boat, tightly packed that we had to sit on each other. It was such a horrible journey,” Naser said.
Despite the continuing conflict, Yemen continues to be a transit point for migrants travelling to Saudi Arabia in search of better employment opportunities, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Yemen said.
“They rely on smuggling networks that span from Somalia to Ethiopia, Djibouti, Yemen and other Gulf countries to facilitate their journeys. Some migrants fall into the hands of traffickers and face exploitation upon arrival in Yemen,” Angela Wells, Media and Communications Officer at IOM-Yemen told The National.
About 32,000 African migrants have been stranded in Yemen because of war and the mobility restrictions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, the IOM said.
“Yemen is not the final destination for the majority, yet nearly 32,000 migrants have become stranded for months in dire conditions at urban transit hubs in Aden, Shabwa, Al Bayda, Mar’ib, Sana’a and Sadah governorates,” Ms Wells said.
“The Covid-19 restrictions have undermined their travel plans to Saudi Arabia,” she added.
Arriving in Aden, Naser was slapped by reality. His thorny road to the promised land had only left him abandoned without any resources in a war-torn and famine-struck country.
“I arrived in Yemen three years ago to cross the border to Saudi Arabia and work there, but all our attempts were doomed to failure because of the war and the pandemic,” he said.
“We have been sleeping in the street, we have no food, no shelter. Sometimes we get lucky to eat leftovers from public restaurants. At other times we starve,” Naser said.
The majority of the African migrants in Yemen live in dire conditions, with many of them killed en route or exposed to violence and mistreatment. Women and children remain the most vulnerable.
“Women and children in particular face significant risks; many are held in smugglers yards and dens across the country and are subjected to physical violence and abuses,” Ms Wells said
A study by the IOM between 2019 to 2020 found that more than 80 per cent of female migrants experience at least one form of gender-based violence in Yemen, usually at the hands of traffickers and smugglers.
As part of its efforts to help the migrants stranded in Yemen, the IOM has operated many repatriation flights to help thousands of Ethiopian migrants in Yemen return home.
Since March 2021, the IOM has operated five repatriation flights through its Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme, and it aims to repatriate about 6,000 Ethiopian migrants who are currently stranded in Yemen, waiting to return home on VHR flights.
“We require urgent funding to meet this need,” Ms Wells said.