International agencies have highlighted a growing humanitarian crisis in and around Haradh in northern Yemen affecting thousands of migrants. Reports of extreme torture and sexual abuse of migrants at the hands of traffickers and smugglers have increased over the past year. An increase in landmine and gunshot wounds among migrants has also been reported as they try to evade increasingly strict border controls by travelling east into regions with a history of conflict.
Agencies reported registering and assisting 11,308 migrants stranded in the city under desperate conditions, by the end of 2012. 90% of these migrants were men, while the rest were women and children. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of migrants in Haradh at any particular time; however, a rough estimate in the ambit of 25,000 has been deduced by humanitarian agencies.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that some migrants are detained by Yemeni authorities but the vast majority live in unprotected open spaces around the urban center. Migrants roam the street with no food or money. Some reports indicate that there are over 900 migrants in detention in Haradh in a 200 capacity prison. In addition, numerous bodies of undocumented irregular migrants lie unclaimed at Haradh hospital morgue, currently beyond capacity. Many migrants survive kidnapping and associated violence prior to their arrival in Haradh. Upon arrival in the city, they face fresh threats of abduction from criminals with bases around the town. Police raids in early April released an estimated 535 migrants including 16 women from their captors according to reports from security sources. Three dozen migrants had urgent medical needs and many showed signs of torture, beatings, sexual abuse and other mistreatment. It was reported that 50 perpetrators including six Ethiopians were arrested in connection with the incident.
Yemen is host to 240, 335 refugees, 95% from Somalia, and the rest from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and other African countries. Insurgency and separatist movements in the North and South respectively have led to massive displacement across the country. According to government figures over 322, 000 were displaced in the North as of March 2013. Of these, 34% are in Hajjah governorate and have little possibility of return. UNHCR’s planning figure for early 2013 cite 390,000 IDPs and a further 200,000 in ‘IDP-like situations’. The refugee and IDP situation, together with an increasing flow of economic migrants, compounds a growing humanitarian crisis in Yemen and places a considerable strain on local services.
Yemen continues to attract mixed movements as a destination and transit country despite its current volatile security situation. In 2012, an estimated 107,532 migrants, primarily from Ethiopia and Somalia made the short but dangerous sea crossing into Yemen via the Red Sea to the West, the Gulf of Aden to the South West, and the Arabian Sea to the South of Yemen. In the first quarter of 2013, 29, 469 migrants arrived on the shores of Yemen. Over 80% of migrants arriving on the shores of Yemen annually are Ethiopians motivated to migrate by several factors, including fear of political persecution but more importantly, the allure of improved economic circumstances in Saudi Arabia. Few Ethiopians aim to remain in Yemen, and may travel on foot along the coast to Haradh. The trek leaves them malnourished, dehydrated, physically exhausted and in need of medical assistance. Somalis usually submit themselves to the asylum process on arrival in Yemen and in some instances may travel north towards the Saudi Arabia border following registration. Each month, a few Somalis and even fewer Ethiopians join their countrymen as refugees in the congested and remote Al-Kharaz camp, near Aden currently sheltering approximately 25,000 refugees.
The city of Haradh
Haradh, in Hajjah governorate borders the 1800 km, 1100 mile Yemen-Saudi Arabia border. The area and its environs have been described as desolate and dangerous, riddled with gun runners, drug and human traffickers as well as migrant smugglers. It has been reported that conflict and instability in the North and South has severely curtailed the ability of the Yemeni Government to effectively address issues of crime. Haradh has a highly visible migrant and displaced population, and is a major transit hub for irregular migrants, seeking to enter Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States in pursuit of economic opportunities. Some migrants arrive with enough money to continue their journey, while others hope to find work in the surrounding khat farms to re-finance their journeys. As a result, Haradh is full of migrants that have been deported from Saudi Arabia, those hoping to find their way into Saudi Arabia, those released from or escaped from criminal gangs and those who have simply come to the end of their road. Service provision, in a country that already struggles to meet the social and economic needs of its citizens, is further burdened by the urgent needs of this growing group. Agencies have reported that humanitarian assistance is being curtailed by dwindling funds against growing needs, forcing assistance to be directed to only the most vulnerable.
Kidnapping, Extortion and Ransom
Criminal gangs in Haradh exploit the presence of thousands of desperate migrants. They are part of the recent alarming and growing trend of ‘commoditization’ of migrants in Yemen evident since 2011. Kidnapping for ransom, due to its widespread nature is now described as a daily occurrence. Rape, sexual and physical assault sometimes resulting in broken limbs and death are commonly used to force migrants or their relatives to pay ransom demands. Mobile phones and their cash transfer systems are being increasingly utilized to extort migrants through their familial relations. Criminal gangs are also reported to be trading in human organs stolen from migrants, but little is known of the details of these allegations. Migrant smugglers and criminal gangs in Yemen have been capitalizing on the instability in the Horn of Africa to subject migrants to situations of forced labour, human trafficking, sexual and physical abuse.
Responses to the Movement
The Saudi Arabia authorities have responded by tightening their border controls, effectively sealing off their territory and leaving thousands of migrants stranded in Haradh, Yemen. Saudi Arabia has started construction of an intended 1800 km fence from the Red Sea coast to the edge of Oman in the east. They claim the move is to halt illegal migration, gun running and drug smuggling. Migrants report that Saudi border guards treat them severely if detected entering Saudi Arabia irregularly. They are normally detained and deported back to Yemen. Yemeni authorities have voiced frustration at the reported practice of Saudi authorities returning intercepted migrants to Yemen.
UNHCR plans to host a conference in 2013 targeting respective Government authorities in the region to discuss and seek solutions to the mixed movement from the Horn of Africa to Yemen. IOM has been implementing awareness raising programmes in Ethiopia to highlight the possible risks of irregular movement, in addition to providing shelter and medical referrals as well as assisted voluntary return to stranded migrants. There are few international agencies present in Haradh offering assistance to migrants. MSF and IOM are the key agencies attempting to support migrants with food and medical relief. On average 4,000 stranded migrants visit IOM’s Migration Response Center on a daily basis, however, food distribution benefiting irregular migrants has largely been scaled down due to funding constraints. Since 2011, over 42,887 medical cases have been treated at IOM health facilities, and demand for such services increases daily. The migrant population in Haradh continues to swell whilst resources to address the situation diminish. Thousands of stranded migrants have expressed their wish to return home but neither the Yemeni authorities, nor the international agencies have the resources to assist them. Meanwhile donors struggle to know how to respond to migrant crises such as that in northern Yemen, unsure whether irregular migrants fall under development or humanitarian aid allocations.