African migration to Yemen: A journey to the unknown [Archives:2007/1047/Reportage]

May 3 2007
Many migrants are believed to have perished on the open seas after having been thrown overboard by smugglers.
Many migrants are believed to have perished on the open seas after having been thrown overboard by smugglers.
She was one among hundreds arrived the Yemeni coasts, but the future is still unknown.
She was one among hundreds arrived the Yemeni coasts, but the future is still unknown.
By: Amel Al-Ariqi
For many years, African migrants have endured perilous voyages for the purpose of sailing across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen and other Arab states in search of economic opportunities or to escape bloody wars in their homelands. In 2006 alone, the United Nations estimated that 26,000 Africans embarked upon such perilous journeys across the Gulf of Aden – but not all of them made it. Many were savagely beaten to death by smugglers and others drowned, while the rest lost their way and were declared missing. Each one had a goal compelling them to believe that they would be able to face any risk – even death – in order to achieve that goal.

A December 2006 U.N. report exposed numerous facts and stories about Ethiopian immigrants seized while attempting to sneak to the Somali port of Bossaso to board smuggling boats bound for Yemeni coasts. Accompanying such stories were many reports of inhumane treatment, risks and pain migrants suffered.

“We were robbed on the way by a group of armed men who stopped the truck and demanded everyone get out and pay for passage. They conducted thorough searches, making us remove our underwear as they looked for hidden money. They threatened to set alight those travelers who refused to pay. We were also beaten,” recounted an 18-year-old female migrant, whose story paralleled the others, confirming that they were abused and robbed by the armed brokers who were supposed to get them to the smuggling vessels,

Most migrants, including women, are humiliated by the searches such men conduct. With a view of extorting money for their services and beyond, the men reportedly beat the migrants with sticks and demand all clothing be removed, ripping open the seams and the soles of shoes looking for money. Searches also include women's private body parts and braided hair.

One woman reported that she hid a 100 Birr note in her mouth in order to save some resources for the rest of the journey. Men who refuse to pay have been put in a five-foot deep hole in the ground with firewood while one of the men threatens to set them alight with a flaming torch.

Additionally, the trucks used for transport almost always are overcrowded, dirty and driven on rough terrain in attempts to avoid main roads and thus detection. Travelers seldom are given enough food and water and hardly allowed to relieve themselves except when the driver chooses to do so.

Many are abandoned in the desert before reaching Bossaso, forced to walk for up to three weeks in search of the main road leading to Bossaso. They recount horrible tales of thirst, hunger, exhaustion and attack by bandits. Their particular vulnerability due to not knowing the local language or directions results in them being robbed repeatedly, swindled out of their money and physically attacked.

“Since we'd lost all of our money, we had to beg because we hadn't eaten in five days. We walked to Bossaso for three days, begging for food and transport along the way,” recounted a 21-year-old Ethiopian farmer traveling with her sister and husband before being arrested. “I was separated from my husband after our arrest. He was deported, but I don't know if he has reached home yet. I'm afraid to go back because people at home probably will hold his sister and me responsible for his absence,” she added.

Along with their money, most migrants report that their IDs also are taken, leaving them unable to prove their identities to authorities; however, how the stolen IDs are used is unclear.

Saudi, not Yemen

The U.N. report pointed out that the typical African migrant is a single male, usually in his 20s, with very little or no education and traveling alone. Women also travel along the same route. They are young, sometimes as young as 15 or 16, but usually in their 20s and often traveling with a male relative.

Most Ethiopian migrants are farmers, leaving behind large families typically consisting of more than five siblings and one or both parents. Such families generally are poor and survive on subsistence farming. The majority are from northeast Ethiopia, particularly the towns of Kemisse, Atyae, Senbete and Tumuga.

Most migrants interviewed by the U.N. confessed that Yemen isn't their main destination; rather, it's used as a transit point to sneak into Gulf countries, particularly Saudi Arabia, where men generally look forward to working as camel and goat shepherds. Women, on the other hand, anticipate employment as housemaids.

Most don't have any idea about how much they can expect to earn and those that do expect to earn between 700 and 900 Saudi Riyals ($185-$240) per month. It's widely believed that women will earn more than men, although none of the respondents had any idea how much men would be paid.

Nearly all of the migrants state that their decision to head to Saudi Arabia is due to others in their localities who have been there, but subsequently were deported back home. In terms of wealth, these individuals left their homeland without much; however, when they returned from Saudi, they displayed relatively marked improvement in their living standard.

“Many people in our neighborhood have been deported from Saudi Arabia. They left home with small plastic bags and returned with large suitcases. There they lived better than the rest of the villagers, explaining that they went to Saudi Arabia through Bossaso,” one migrant said regarding his reason for choosing Saudi Arabia. Like the others, he thought the only potential risk was the boat crossing to Yemen, which they admit can be dangerous, but not enough to abandon their decision to migrate.

Upon deciding to leave for Saudi Arabia, a traveler then must proceed to raise the necessary amount of money for the trip, which can be anywhere between 1,000 and 7,000 Birr ($115-$800). Some save money earned from their normal sources of income while many borrow it from local merchants. However, migrants admit that the journey's financial burden leaves many with relatively large amounts of debt that they can't pay easily. Additionally, the initial fundraising often compels them to part with valuable or essential property, including that used as means to earn a basic livelihood.

Death, detention, deportation

According to UNHCR reports, those able to escape the authorities in Bossaso and take the boat crossing to the Gulf of Aden are exposed to extreme dangers because such boats are hardly seaworthy, often overcrowded and at high risk of capsizing. Many migrants are believed to have perished on the open seas after having been thrown overboard by boat operators.

As only Somalis are considered refugees in Yemen, other African nationals are subject to detention and deportation, both in Yemen and the Gulf states. Many human rights organizations continue questioning the circumstances surrounding such detention and deportation.