Migrant workers in Yemen:If you need them, then help them [Archives:2004/778/Community]

October 4 2004

Marina de Regt,
University of Amsterdam
For the Yemen Times

Last Sunday it was 26th of September and Yemen celebrated the 42nd anniversary of the revolution. Forty-two years ago, Yemen has been freed of a dictatorial regime and decades of oppression of the Yemeni people. Since then major changes have taken place in Yemen, on all levels of society. The 30 September, a date that has no meaning for Yemenis but which is fixed in the minds of many migrants living and working in Yemen. One month ago, the Ministry of Interior announced that people living and working in Yemen without a residence permit (iqama) would have one month to obtain this permit. If they do not have a residence permit after September 30, they will be imprisoned and deported to their home countries.
This announcement has caused immense worries among many migrants in Yemen, especially those who came from poorer countries in the region such as Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea. Yet, while Somalis are recognized as refugees and therefore those who have an ID-card from UNHCR do not run the risk of being imprisoned and deported, many other East Africans are here for economic reasons and work here illegally. They came by boat to Yemen crossing the Red Sea or they came by plane on tourist visa and joined relatives or friends living in Yemen. These migrants are sharing apartments in the poorer areas of Yemeni cities, often living together in small rooms and having access only to basic facilities. They suffer from high rents, the proprietors benefiting from the fact that they are non-Yemenis. They work as unskilled laborers in different sectors of society, doing work most Yemenis refuse to do. The salaries they receive are too low to build up a reasonable living, also because they often send a main part of their money home.
A large group of illegal migrants consists of single women who are working as maids in the houses of Yemeni families. Some of them are living with the families they work for but the majority work six days a week from 8.00 a.m. until 4.00 p.m. They clean, wash and iron, and sometimes cook and take care of small children. Yemeni middle class families are increasingly making use of foreign domestic workers, even when the families and the houses are not very big and the women in the house are not having paid jobs outside the house. Yemeni women are shifting their attention from housekeeping to other activities and having a (foreign) house cleaner is seen as essential and a status symbol of middle class identity. The workload of the domestic workers varies depending on the size of the family and of the house and their salaries differ. The large majority of women earns a salary between 10.000 and 20.000 YR (50-100 US$), and do not have a work permit nor a residence permit. Many of the women working as maids are having sleepless nights this month because they are afraid that they will be imprisoned and deported. The fines they have to pay for not having a residence permit for considerable periods are too high for them to pay. However, they do not want to go back to their home countries because there is no work for them and they cannot support their families. Their remittances are of invaluable importance for their families back home.
Since the 1962 revolution, major changes have taken place in Yemen on all levels of society. Infrastructure has been improved, schools have been built, health facilities have been expanded, women are actively involved in many fields, civil society is flourishing and a democracy is in the making. Celebrating these changes is good, but we should not forget how these changes have come about. An important factor in the changes that Yemeni society undergoes is related to the big influence of Yemenis living abroad, and in East-Africa. Yemeni migrants have lived and worked in East-African countries for decades and were able to build up big companies and earn a lot of money. Their stay abroad had important economic, political and social consequences for their home country, and the impact is still very visible nowadays. In addition, there are many Yemenis who are having East-African roots, their mothers being of East-African background, and others have been brought up in East-Africa and regularly pay a visit to Ethiopia or Eritrea. Yemenis in East-Africa were treated as kings, I often hear, but Ethiopians in Yemen are treated very differently. The upcoming campaign to arrest and deport people without residence permits should give Yemenis a chance to do something back to those who helped them to build up their own country. Many Yemenis benefit from the presence of these migrants because they work as unskilled laborers, such as maids, and because of the high rents, they receive from renting their apartments to them. So if you need the migrants, then help them to get a residence permit!