YEMENIS: Doomed to Emigrate For Ever? [Archives:1999/10/Focus]

March 8 1999

This is an OPINION page.
Every week, a different intellectual writes a FOCUS on a pertinent issue! 

Mohammed Ahmed Abbas,
Columnist, Yemen Times.
For those who continue to argue that conditions in Yemen are good, the stampede of Yemenis to get out of the country is a strong vote against them. As the saying goes, “People are voting with their feet.” The point is that citizens do not leave their homeland and their loved ones unless conditions are really bad and there is little hope of improvement in the horizon.
Yemenis nowadays leave for any of three reasons. First and foremost, there are the economic hardships. The living conditions of Yemenis continue to deteriorate. So, people leave in search of better opportunities.
Second, political instability is a major push factor. Many individuals simply decide to call it quits because of the expected melt-down they think is coming given the unending political power-struggle.
Finally, there is the breakdown of law and order. Shoot-outs, bomb explosions, attacks on people, kidnapping, etc., have become a routine and regular occurrence. In simple words, people no longer feel safe and secure in this country. Hence they leave.
Wherever you go, you find Yemenis trying to get out of the country. There are many manifestations to this stampede.
1. Immigration Ads:
Many Yemeni newspapers carry advertisements of companies that offer services to enable would-be immigrants the facilities they need. In fact, the options are to go to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and other societies.
2. Queues at Embassies:
The long lines in front of various embassies in Sanaa is another manifestation. The people are willing to try out any country in order to get out.
The run on embassies explains the difficult job of consuls and the stringent measures taken. It also explains the forgery of visas that has become a common problem.
3. Asylum:
As soon as they land, many Yemenis try to ask for political asylum. Many European nations (notably, the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian States) have become preferred targets.
As a result of the bad conditions at home, the nation of Yemen has lost a rising number of its best people. Many highly educated Yemenis have left this wretched land, in what has become a classic case of “brain drain.”Medical doctors, university professors, pilots, engineers, television announcers, computer programmers, oil/gas experts, economists, architects, and many other highly talented and trained people have left the country.
The drain continues as there is no letting-up in the horizon. In fact, many Yemenis who are being educated/trained abroad are trying to short-circuit the cycle by going directly to wherever the opportunities are rather than going through Yemen.
Some people say that there is nothing new in the present predicament. Yemen is destined to overflow with population leading to waves of immigrations. This fatalism is intertwined in local and even world mythology.
Myth has it that Sezef was punished by the gods to carry a huge boulder to the top of the mountain. As he nears completion of the uphill journey, the rock falls off his shoulders. He has to start the journey over again. Just as poor Sezeef’s life is exhausted in an endless hard labor, so are Yemenis. Or so the belief goes.
Have the gods decreed that men living in Yemen are doomed to hardship? Were they fated to endless tiredness and hard labor? Or to put it more bluntly, was this man predetermined to face history as an unavoidable fate? Is he asked to fight endless challenges or seek better chances in other lands?
How hard it is when real life is confused with that of the myths! And how much harder it is for a nation which believes it is destined to doom.
Any one who reads the history of Yemen will find adequate proof for the extensive mingling of myth and history leading to a fatalistic belief that we are ordained to emigrate. If one were to ask for more proof, read what the history books tell us about the destruction of the Great Marib Dam and the subsequent waves of migration to the northern Arab lands. Those migrations are linked to the myth of the collapse of the dam. As the myth has it, it broke down because of a mouse! What a mouse that must have been. It must be the ancestor of the Mighty Mouse.
While modern scientific studies refute this wild idea and attribute the collapse of the dam to lack of proper and regular maintenance, this point of fact is irrelevant. What is more important is what sticks in the collective memory of our people. What is important is what they believe, and they believe the mouse did it, and it was a sign for them to get going.
The waves of emigration continue in spite of stringent visa requirements today. This endless flow has made emigration a striking characteristic in the history of Yemeni evolution.
There is one way to stem the flow – improve conditions in Yemen. This involves a comprehensive policy of visible development, socio-political harmony, reduction in the level of alienation by strengthening the sense of belonging, and above all, by controlling the population growth rate. In other words, we have to have a better system here at home.
In a few weeks, the Ministry of Immigrants Affairs will hold a major conference to discuss relations between the immigrant communities and the homeland. One of the key parameters of the conference is how to strengthen the attachment of immigrants to the homeland and increase their sense of belonging. I am afraid that is a misplaced priority. Yemenis in the diaspora do not need to be taught they should feel an attachment to Yemen. They do so naturally, as the experience of second and third generation Yemenis in Birmigham (UK) or Brooklyn (USA) shows. Our people do not melt into their host communities, which is actually bad for them. But, my point is here is that the conference should find a way to strengthen the attachment and a sense of belonging to Yemen by the people who are in Yemen. It is these Yemenis living right here who need the re-assurance.
We have to re-interpret history in a less fatalistic or mystic way. We are not compelled to accept that we are destined to over-populate Yemen and then seek to maraud or over-whelm other lands.
The prevailing view of history and the mix between myth and reality is extremely far from being valid, for it is Man through his contest with circumstances that makes better living conditions. Never is there a pre-ordained concept of history.
Social phenomena, of which migration is one, are historic occurrences governed by local and regional conditions. So we will have to bear in mind when talking about migration that it is a relative phenomenon. It is not and should not be treated as an absolute item.
What really happens when we embark on the the study of social phenomena is that we tend to forget that these phenomena have passed through several stages of development and have acquired a certain shape which might appear to the heedless examiner to be a fixed and unchangeable fate.
We should start by stressing the fact that conditions and resources in Yemen do allow for the blooming of a prosperous society. There is ample proof in history. We have had our share in human civilization, we have contributed and interacted positively at many stages of human history.
Second, we should realize that the days of opening new frontiers in unclaimed land masses are gone, and that is no longer a feasible possibility.
Third, Yemenis have to put their act together and create a system that will meet their needs here in Yemen. Today, our fate and our chances of a good life are determined by our skills at management and optimal allocation of resources rather than by fate or of anything else.
Immigration is a major part of our history as well as of our present societal structure. We cannot change that. But unleashing floods and hordes of people onto others’ lands is no longer feasible or acceptable. We should do something to stem the flow.
At the same time, our aid partners should help us in creating a good system at home. It is only through the creation of good government that we can keep the Yemenis at home.