By Alexander Weissenburger (ISA)
While the civil war in Syria has received ample coverage in Western media, this is far less true for the ongoing conflict in Yemen. Without perceptible repercussions to the Western world, there is little interest in the fallout of this conflict of close to fifteen years. It entails no terrorist threat to European capitals and, due to Yemen’s remoteness, hardly a refugee reaches Europe. Yet, far away from the glare of Western cameras, Yemen has to deal with its own displaced population, and, moreover, remains a hub for regional migration from the Horn of Africa.
Yemen and the Horn of Africa
In 1980 the Yemen Arab Republic became - and remains to this day - the only country on the Arabian Peninsula to sign the 1951 Refugee Convention as well as the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees of 1967. However, already before the 1980s, Yemen accepted refugees from the Horn of Africa. While the first group of new arrivals fled the Eritrean War of Independence from the 1960s onwards, later refugees came primarily from Somalia. In 2002, the UNHCR registered over 70,000 refugees in Yemen, 92% of whom originated from Somalia. Estimates, however, suggest that the actual number of migrants in Yemen far exceeded 300,000. By 2013, the Yemeni Transitional Government reckoned the number of refugees to be between 600,000 and 800,000. These large numbers of migrants, including refugees as well as asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, led to revisions in Yemen’s previously rather liberal migration policies. At the same time, the so-called “War on Terror” caused migrants to be increasingly seen as a security threat.
Nevertheless, migration to Yemen continued unabated. By 2013 Ethiopians constituted the majority of migrants to Yemen and made up 83% of the approximately 120,000 new arrivals of 2016. Migrants pay smugglers several hundred Dollars (between 100 and 500$) to cross the Gulf of Aden and then several hundred more to reach Yemen’s northern border. For another 800$ they are smuggled across the border to Saudi Arabia, which remains the main destination for the migrants. Since 2015, with the current war in Yemen, the way into Saudi Arabia has become more difficult and a new route opened up with migrants crossing the Red Sea in Northern Yemen in order to reach Sudan and from there travel on to Egypt, Libya and, finally, to Europe.
On their way, migrants face horrible conditions. Besides the overall deteriorating situation in war-torn Yemen, migrants are frequently mistreated by their smugglers. Since the trafficking of humans - often alongside the smuggling of weapons and oil - has become such a lucrative business, the smuggling networks have no interest in migrants making the journey on their own. Migrants are therefore often forced to use these networks, in which case they are completely dependent on their smugglers, who frequently abuse their power. Migrants are forced to hand over money, held to ransom, sexually abused and tortured in order to extort money or contact information of relatives, who are then pressured into sending money in exchange of the release of the captive. A Human Rights Watch report states that this happens at a systematic scale with camps in deserted areas run mainly by Yemenis.
Due to the worsening security situation in the country, African migrants as well as Yemenis increasingly leave Yemen. While the African migrants return home, the Yemenis are left with only few options. The countries on the Horn of Africa are not attractive and Arabic countries are hard to reach due to the blockade imposed on Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. Nevertheless, there are several thousand refugees from Yemen living in countries such as Somalia, Eritrea and Egypt, and, most importantly, Jordan. While the UN has registered 12,500 Yemenis in Jordan, their actual number could easily be twice as much. The number of Yemenis looking for a better life abroad is likely to rise as the situation deteriorates. For the time being, however, their number is easily dwarfed by the three million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
Internal Displacement in Yemen
Internal displacement in the case of Yemen is intrinsically linked to the ongoing crisis. The current conflict in Yemen has its roots in the early 2000s when Husayn al-Huthi, an Islamic scholar and agitator belonging to the Zaydi denomination of Shiite Islam, founded the Huthi movement in the northern province of Sa’da. His Islamist and anti-Western rhetoric put him in conflict with the Yemeni government, which tried to subdue the movement. Between 2004 and 2010 the northern provinces of Yemen saw six rounds of war between the government and the movement. By the end of the last round, 250,000 people had been displaced in the province of Sa’da alone.
In 2011, the Huthis participated in the Arab spring uprising and took part in the transition process after Ali Abdallah Salih had resigned as president. When the new government under President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi failed to meet the population’s expectations, the Huthis exploited the popular anger and marched south, taking Sanaa in September 2014. President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi fled first to the southern Yemeni city of Aden and then to Saudi Arabia. In March 2015, the aforementioned coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia began to intervene in Yemen, with the declared goal of reinstating President Abd Rabbo Mansur Hadi. The coalition keeps bombing Huthi controlled territory, including civilian infrastructure, agricultural areas and cultural heritage sites, while simultaneously preventing humanitarian aid from entering the country by sea and air.
Mainly due to the blockade, Yemen - which has to import around 90% of its main food staples - today faces what the UN calls the world’s greatest current humanitarian catastrophe. 60% of the population are food insecure and 8.4 million people (around 25% of the total population) are at risk of starvation. Besides hunger, diseases and fighting, the population faces corruption and political as well as economic oppression, by all actors in the conflict. With the crisis most severe in the countryside, where what little arrives in terms of humanitarian aid in Yemen is harder to distribute, people flee to the cities and especially the safer regions of the country.
Between 2014 and 2018 the population of the relatively safe province of Marib in central Yemen rose from around 350,000 to more than 1.5 million. The impact is obvious. Hospitals and schools are overwhelmed, as is the housing market. While IDPs are also housed in camps, many are from the middle class and can afford to rent accommodation in the city. This increase in demand severely pushed up rent prices, adding to the strain on the local population. The same problem is seen in the southwestern province of Ibb, where people took refuge from the fighting in the city of Taizz.
With no end of the conflict in sight, the situation of the population is set to deteriorate further in the coming months, with the number of refugees from, as well as within, Yemen likely to rise. It can only be hoped that the increasing public interest in the crisis following in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 puts pressure on the relevant political actors to effect at least the lifting of the blockade in order to alleviate the misery of the Yemeni population.
 Until 1990, Yemen was split into the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR) in the north and west of the country and the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) in the south and east. After unification, the new state remained subject to all international treaties the former YAR had signed.
 Thiollet, Helene: From Migration Hub to Asylum Crisis: The Changing Dynamics of Contemporary Migration in Yemen, in Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition, edited by Helen Lackner, Saqi Books, London 2014, 281.
 Hughes, Nesya H B: Yemen and Refugees: Progressive Attitudes –Policy Voids, Forced Migration Review January 2003, 36-38.
 Thiollet, Helene: From Migration Hub to Asylum Crisis, 280.
 Thiollet, Helene: From Migration Hub to Asylum Crisis, 275-276.
 Tinti, Peter: Migrant Smuggling: Paths from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia, Africa in the World Report 7, Institute for Security Studies November 2017, 16.
 Abdiker, Mohammed: Yemen: the Deadly Migration Route the World is Ignoring, CNN, 20 June 2018, https://edition.cnn.com/2018/06/20/opinions/yemen-migration-iom/index.html, accessed on 24 October 2018.
 Human Rights Watch: Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of Migrants by Human Traffickers in a Climate of Impunity, 2014, 37-47.
 UNHCR: As Yemen Conditions Deteriorate, Somali Refugees Look to Return Home, 19 May 2017, http://www.unhcr.org/news/briefing/2017/5/591ea2554/yemen-conditions-deteriorate-somali-refugees-look-return-home.html, accessed on 24 October 2018.
 Luck, Taylor: Yemenis Join the Line of Refugees Seeking Help in Jordan, The National, September 18, 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/mena/yemenis-join-the-line-of-refugees-seeking-help-in-jordan-1.771577.
 Brandt, Marieke: Tribes and Politics in Yemen, New York, Hurst, 2017, p. 326.
 https://news.un.org/en/focus/yemen, accessed on 15 November 2018.
 Tuzayid Adad al-Najihin ila Madina Ma'rib, al-Jazeera, 13 March 2016,
http://www.aljazeera.net/programs/newsreports/2016/3/19/%D8%AA%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D8%A3%D8%B9%D8%AF%D8%A7%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B2%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%86-%D8%A5%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%A8, accessed on 24 October 2018; al-Yaman.. al-Nazihun yarfa’a Ijarat al-Sukun 550% bi-l-Manatiq al-Amina, al-Arabi al-Jadid, 3 September 2016, https://www.alaraby.co.uk/economy/2016/9/3/%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%85%D9%86-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B2%D9%88%D8%AD-%D9%8A%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B9-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%AC%D8%A7%D8%B1%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B3%D9%83%D9%86-500-%D8%A8%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%82-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A2%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A9, accessed on 24 October 2018.