Child migrants return to tell their stories [Archives:2008/1154/Reportage]

May 12 2008

Alia Ishaq
Ahmed*, who is from Mahwit, looked like he was 12, but claimed to be around 17 or 18 years old. He was very excited to tell his story. “I went to Saudi Arabia three times already!” he began.

Ahmed left his family after experiencing problems with his neighbors, who had told his father that he had stolen money from them.

After getting in trouble with his father, he decided to leave, following the advice of friends who convinced him. “A man from our village went to Saudi Arabia and told us he earned a lot of money, which he keeps in the bank, so we automatically thought we'd do the same,” Ahmed explained.

There are no official statistics recording how many Yemeni children annually leave home in order to cross the Yemeni-Saudi border, nor any studies to determine the reasons for their departures. Some travel because of family troubles, while others go to Saudi Arabia to eke out a living, although they earn only a small amount of money and face much danger.

However, in the past few years, Saudi Arabia has stopped accepting these child migrants, instead returning them to two Yemeni reception centers where the children await their parents to pick them up, if they show up at all. One center is in Haradth on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia and the other is in Sana'a.

After a long journey with an anonymous truck driver, the children reach Haradth, where smugglers take them across the border. “Just before the border,” Ahmed recalled, “the smugglers told us to get out of the truck and walk behind the check point so the police wouldn't be able to see us,” after which they met up with the children again at the main road and took them to Jeddah.

Once there, Ahmed and his friends went to live with Ahmed's cousin, a legal resident of the kingdom working as a shopkeeper. “There were around 10 of us living with my cousin, who told each of us to find a job,” he explained, noting, “Some of us were lucky to find jobs as construction workers, but I wasn't lucky at all.”

Ahmed couldn't find a job and spent his days looking for a job as a construction worker like his friends, but without success.

He said police sometimes would show up unannounced at his cousin's house, so the fugitive boys would have to hide themselves. “It was scary! We'd jump out of the windows and run away; we got hurt many times,” he said.

After getting bored with doing nothing but chewing qat (which according to him, he got from qat traffickers in Saudi Arabia) and becoming further indebted to his cousin, who allowed him to stay on, Ahmed decided to return home.

He went to the Yemeni Embassy and told them his story, but surprisingly, some employees there advised him to stay. However, Ahmed was determined to leave, so he was returned to Yemen three days later.

The second time, he sought work in Saudi Arabia for two days before getting caught by the police, who threw him in jail for a few hours and then returned him to the Haradth receiving center.

The third time, he walked with friends across the border with no water, but was caught immediately after crossing illegally into Saudi Arabia. Although he knows it's dangerous to be smuggled illegally into another country, he says he may consider going again anyway.

Ali*, a self-proclaimed 16-year-old from Hodeidah who looks like he can't be more than 12, said his journey to Saudi Arabia actually saved him from his abusive father. “He used to beat me all the time; I don't know why,” he said sadly.

Ali made the journey on his own, without the help of a smuggler or even a friend. “I went to Haradth square [a checkpoint for all buses and taxis traveling between Hodeidah and Haradth] and then went with a truck driver who took me and another boy all the way to Haradth,” he explained.

That boy whom Ali met in the truck helped him get a job at a car wash owned by a Yemeni man in Saudi Arabia. His job, which lasted only two days because he was caught by the police and sent back to Yemen, paid him the equivalent of YR 400 per day. Ali now is living at the Sana'a reception center and refuses to return to his abusive home situation.

Nobody knows where children like Ali and Ahmed will end up. The reception center is supposed to be a temporary residence for the children until their parents show up.

Abdullah Al-Hamadi, director of the Sana'a reception center, notes that the shelter offers food, activities, sports and literacy training for some and schooling for others to catch up with their peers. However, he adds, “We were promised that a new residence for such children will begin operating, but we don't know when.”

*These names have been changed to protect their identities.