Desperate choices: conditions, risks and protection failures affecting Ethiopian migrants in Yemen

Human rights abuses, killings, sexual violence, abductions and ransom demands, lack of jobs, discrimination in the workplace and widespread poverty and destitution are some of the many problems facing Ethiopian migrant’s en-route to, transiting through or intending to settle in Yemen, a research report by the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) and the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) has uncovered.

DRC/RMMS conducted a study of Ethiopians in Yemen in light of the unprecedented increase of Ethiopians migrating to Yemen in recent years as well as disturbing reports of abuse. In the first eight months of 2012 alone, an estimated 51,000 Ethiopian migrants crossed to Yemen. At least, 75,000 Ethiopians arrived on Yemen beaches in 2011, many of them entering Yemen illegally, and it is now estimated that close to quarter of a million Ethiopian migrants have migrated into Yemen since 2006. The report Desperate Choices, conditions, risks and protection failures affecting Ethiopian migrants in Yemen, details the trends of migration into Yemen both as a country of transit into Saudi Arabia and the greater Middle East but also as a destination nation with many Ethiopians engaged in various economic activities in different geographical regions within the country. However, the most important feature of the report is that it identifies numerous and alarmingly brutal human rights abuses and protection challenges facing Ethiopian migrants in Yemen.

The research report uncovers a very disturbing picture of the migration and settlement of Ethiopians in Yemen. Migrants travelling overland from Ethiopia cross the Arabian and Red Sea under harsh circumstances and are often vulnerable to all sorts of dangers. Many migrants die of starvation, dehydration and banditry while on the inland journey between Ethiopia and the Arabian and Red Sea. The report further reveals that sea killings and drowning’s by smuggler crews which characterized migration journeys over the past few years have dramatically decreased in recent months. However, this maybe because of an alarming new reality for migrants - the abduction and demand of ransom from criminal gangs.

When two small trucks appeared on the beach, our boat turned and reached the beach in a few minutes and it stopped at a short distance from the beach. To go ashore we had to swim. When we reached the two trucks we realized that there were 8 armed men on them. We got on the trucks and we were transported to a house in the desert.

Ethiopian boy interviewed in Haradh

The ‘commoditization’ of kidnapped migrants is fast becoming a lucrative business for criminals in Yemen. The research uncovered that migrants are often kidnapped immediately they arrive on the shores of Yemen, and sea smugglers seem to be in collision with the kidnapping gangs. The sea smugglers alert kidnapping gangs about incoming migrant boats and the arriving migrants are then kidnapped and coerced to call family members to pay ransoms before they are allowed to continue with their onward journey into Yemen.

Particularly disturbing is the fate of women who cross into Yemen. Women are often captured, kidnapped and disappear and it is believed they are trafficked for sexual or domestic slavery.

They beat me and they put fire on my leg… about my sister they beat her as well as they make all things they want with her. That means they raped her and they force me to watch as they rape her.

Ethiopian male from Harer

Most women interviewed for the study also reported extensive sexual violence, with many women reporting being raped at almost every stage in their journey and stay within Yemen. In cases where women get pregnant resulting from the rapes or from consensual relationships, they find themselves with little or no access to medical help. Many mothers also reported that it was nearly impossible to get jobs in Yemen when they have young children and many women have to send their children back to Ethiopia. The women have established a unique return migration strategy for their children for care by remaining family members in Ethiopia.

The report also provides an insight into future migration and settlement intentions of the Ethiopian population in Yemen. Most of the 130 Ethiopians interviewed for the study intend to return should economic and political challenges ease within the country of origin.

The report ends by detailing possible migration trends into the Yemeni sub region as well as policy challenges for humanitarian actors and the Yemeni government to improve protection and assistance for Ethiopian migrants. Desperate Choices is not designed as a rigorous quantitative or academic resource with unshakable statistical credentials but instead one that balances quantitative and qualitative data in a report designed to act as a trigger or catalyst for policy discussion, programme intervention and raising the issues in the countries concerned and internationally.