The Ordeals of the Yemeni Emigrants [Archives:1999/50/Interview]

December 13 1999

Since time immemorial Yemen has been renowned for the migration of its people. Before Islam, Yemenis migrated to Egypt, North of the Arab Peninsula and to Ethiopia. In the Islamic era, Yemenis helped the Islamic armies in conquering countries outside of the Arab Peninsula, especially during the period of the Orthodox Caliphs and the Ummayed state. Yemenis participated in the Islamic conquests in the form of tribes along with their chiefs and leaders. Many of them settled in the countries and regions conquered by the Islamic armies such as Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Morocco and Andalusia. They formed communities and residential quarters of their own which were known by the names of their tribes and families.
Yemeni waves of migration continued throughout all stages of Yemen history until now. Modern Yemeni migration destinations included many areas and countries of the world, such as islands of the Far East, India, Ethiopia, East Africa, some Arab countries like Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. Yemenis migrated further to the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Mr. Ibrahim Abdulrashid, undersecretary at the Ministry of the Expatriates, is a social researcher who specialized in immigration affairs and has been working in the Ministry for over 15 years. He has also been working as a journalist since 1972 and contributes to different newspapers. Mohammed Bin Sallam of Yemen Times talked to Mr. Ibrahim and filed the following interview.
Q: What are the major problems faced by Yemeni emigrants?
A: Their problems abroad are mainly legal and the majority of them are embodied in problems among themselves. Some countries do not allow the expatriate to have dual nationality, so he has to choose either his original nationality or that of the country where he is living. There are some very regrettable problems faced by Yemeni emigrants in many countries, particularly in certain African countries, such as pillage and attacks, a situation which reflects the instability of security conditions, civil disputes and wars in those countries. Examples of these incidents were what happened in Somalia and during the Gulf War.
In some African countries many emigrants had lost their fortunes and possessions under nationalization measures which put them in very difficult circumstances. This happened in Uganda, Tanzania and in Eritrea where the Yemeni emigrants had to leave.
Personal problems among these Yemeni emigrants may sometimes cause them to lose fortunes of money. This is particularly the case concerning with Yemeni emigrants in Djibouti. They are suffering more than others from personal disputes leading them to courts where they lose a lot of money. These problems do not only waste their time and money but also negatively affect the embassy and create some obstacles in handling their affairs there. There are also some problems that emerge through the administrative bodies they elect and are often run according to personal interests. Such problems among the Yemeni expatriates are reflected in their relationships with different authorities in those countries.
There are some social problems which come to being as a result of family problems which existed before immigration, especially pertaining to inheritance, rights, and other family relations. Even when they return home they are received by some greedy influential persons who pretend to take upon themselves the responsibility of solving these problems, but actually they try to exploit these emigrants and swindle them out of their money. If they fall back on courts they will be met with some rapacious judges who tend to put off their cases over years to exploit them as much as possible. The ministry is doing its best to follow up all the procedures that come from representatives of the emigrants, however, this does not put an end to these problems.
Emigrants also complain about the insufficiency of services rendered to them by some concerned organizations and institutions, especially regarding sea, air and land terminals. On their return home the expatriates suffer from problems created by some concerned parties in the governorates related to services for getting identity cards and passports. Little awareness of some returnee emigrants makes them an easy prey for these greedy, dishonest people. The ministry of expatriate affairs should unleash serious efforts to raise the awareness and understanding of all the issues related to procedures of travelling and settling abroad.
Q: People used to travel mainly because of poor living conditions and were in quest of better prospects for life and education. What about the new migrations that include skilled and talented people?
A: For Yemenis, emigration is not a new phenomenon. We at the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs are concerned essentially with modern Yemeni emigration. In regard to the migration of the qualified and competent cadres we find that is very much discernible nowadays.
In the late 1990s, we find that migration of this segment of the society has increased sharply. They have migrated to different parts of the world for various factors such as the returnees from the Gulf countries during the war, unemployment and hard economic conditions. It is true that the number of these people is not so big, nevertheless they have negative effects on the society which suffer a lot from the loss of these cadres.
Q: How many do you estimate migrated in the past ten years?
A: We do not have statistics but we have some indications that show that there is a strong migration drive, especially in regard to those who are qualified and capable, the majority of whom go to America, Europe and Canada. There are no organizations to facilitate their migration therefore such people depend on their personal contacts and relations.
Q: What kind of assistance or help do you offer to emigrants?
A: We offer many facilities, however they are not enough. Some of these facilities are rendered through the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs in which the ministry tries to ease the difficulties faced by the emigrants. It also tries to follow up the complaints it receives from Yemeni communities abroad. It also tries to make plans and studies for the future which will help offer more services to them. There are also different activities offered to Yemeni expatriates such as schools established in America, Britain, Africa and India where curricula are in Arabic and the students are taught Islamic religion and the national subjects. The issue of preserving Yemeni identity is the most important matter that draws the ministry’s attention. There are also some programs broadcast on Sana’a and Aden radio which are beamed to these expatriates. Some newspapers specify full pages every week for the expatriates in addition to activities by some Yemeni organizations.
Q: What is the role of Yemeni Satellite TV channel in keeping the expatriates cultural identity?
A: Our TV channel is not actually doing what it should do. It seems to give these emigrants a cold shoulder. We have received many complaints from expatriates saying that they do not find what they long to watch on our channel.
Q: We have heard that the ministry suggested that place of birth be deleted from the identity card, what is the point behind that?
A: This is actually one of the problems that deeply concerns the expatriates, especially those living in non-Arab countries some of whom have been living there for more than half a century. Though this is a very sensitive matter, we find that it is not given the concern it deserves by the competent authorities. The process of emigration is still going on and this means that new citizens will be born abroad and we have to deal with emigration as a social phenomenon, considering all its sides and facets. The point is not that of giving an identity card or not. It is actually more critical than this. Putting such a piece of information on the card tends to isolate those who were born abroad from those who were born in Yemen. We want to bridge this artificial gap and incorporate these emigrants and their children with the Yemeni society. If such problems are solved, our society may gain many advantages in terms of attracting the expatriates to invest in their own country.
Q: In America there is a Yemeni Jewish community of more than 5000 people and there are other Yemeni Jews in countries like Canada and Britain. Do you consider them as Yemeni expatriates and should they get the same attention?
A: In fact this is a very important issue and the exact answer can be given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. However our ministry has clear and specific laws and a standing order to deal with these emigrants accordingly. We deal with all the Yemenis irrespective of their colour, religion and race as long as their procedures come under our specialization and according to effective Yemeni laws.
Q: Emigrants complain about high charges of obtaining passports in the countries abroad. The same thing happens when they try to get passports for their children. How do you respond to that?
A: This is another problem that the ministry pays attention to. We have discussed it with the Ministry of the Interior and the Committee of Expatriate Affairs at the Parliament. We have asserted, in many meetings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, that the charges of issuing passports are very high. They used to be for $100 for a family passport. We also used to receive complaints from emigrants in some countries saying that $100 is too expensive. However, the Ministry of the Interior has endorsed new procedures necessitating that each individual child of the emigrant must have a separate passport. This has actually caused more problems as the father can no longer register his children in his passport, and the cost of these passports is much too expensive, especially for those living in Saudi Arabia. When they want to visit their homeland they must pay entry visa charges for each member of the family.
Q: In regard to the bone of contention among the Yemeni community in Britain over a building in Birmingham, what is the role of the ministry in settling this?
A: The problem of this building is an old story. The building used to be inhabited by the Yemeni Workers Union and then by the Yemeni community after unification. Some expatriates said that since it was used by the Yemeni Workers Union, it belongs to them and the Yemeni community claims it to be theirs. The problem has been taken to court. Its decision should be committed to by all parties.
Q: In the last few years it has been noticed that there is a migration drive to New Zealand and other new countries. How would you deal with this new problem?
A: The process of emigration is not an organized one and not preceded by certain agreements, contracts or protocols between Yemen and the destination countries. Immigrants travel on their own. What concerns us more as a ministry is not the new migration but rather the previous ones. We do follow up the affairs of these expatriates through direct or indirect diplomatic channels, and when their number increases the ministry will set up an organization for them and start dealing with their affairs.