Record numbers of refugees and migrants arrive in Yemen amidst intensifying and complicated war

Despite the ongoing war and escalating humanitarian crisis in Yemen, this year has seen a spike in the number of arrivals of East African refugees and migrants to Yemen. IOM estimates that 18,320 refugees and migrants arrived in April 2019 and 18,904 people arrived in May 2019 – representing the highest monthly arrivals figures since data became available in 2006. In total, 84,378 East Africans are estimated to have arrived in the first six months of 2019. This route is already the largest mixed migration route out of East Africa. If trends continue, arrivals for 2019 could exceed the record 159,838 refugees and migrants estimated to have arrived in Yemen in 2018.

Many of these refugees and migrants intend to transit through Yemen on route to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Ethiopians make up 90% of the arrivals into Yemen while Somalis account for around 10% of arrivals in 2019. The mixed migration flow to Yemen is largely made up of young men, however nearly 20% are women and around 10% are children. High unemployment rates and political insecurity are major drivers for Ethiopians and Somalis to the Gulf, where they hope to find employment, better opportunities, and security. However, migrants and refugees traveling along this route face violations of their human rights at every stage of the journey, with a high risk of being trafficked, kidnapped, or dying at sea on one of the busiest maritime mixed migration routes in the world.

In addition, the fragile political situation in Yemen has opened up new avenues for smuggling operations and may lure refugees and migrants to travel with the perception of ease of movement through Yemen. In reality, the deteriorating situation in Yemen has created new loopholes for strong trafficking networks and new opportunities to exploit refugees and migrants along this route. Migrants also feel the impact of the deepening crisis in Yemen and are often impacted by the conflict and insecurity. Since 2017, Yemen’s port city of Aden has emerged as a detention hub for Ethiopian and Somali migrants and refugees. In early May 2019, around 5,000 people were known to have been detained during a peak period in detention in unstainable conditions, including in a stadium. It is unclear how the takeover of Aden  in mid-August 2019 by Southern Yemen separatist forces – framed as a civil war within a civil war – will impact on migrants and refugees stranded there, or on future returns. As active fighting continues in the intensifying and complicated war in Yemen, concerns are being raised for refugees and migrants traveling through Yemen and thousands of East African migrants and refugees who remain stranded or detained in areas around Aden.

Serious protection risks at every stage of the journey

Every year, tens of thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis travel through harsh terrain in Djibouti and Puntland to reach departure areas along the coastline where they can find boats to take them to Yemen. From there, they embark on a dangerous boat journey through the Red or Arabian seas to reach points along Yemen’s coast. Although 274 deaths were recorded on the sea journey to Yemen in 2018, far more migrants are likely dying on this route every year. However, it’s when migrants and refugees arrive in Yemen that some of the most serious protection risks can occur. Arbitrary and abusive detention, trafficking and other protection risks are increasingly prevalent for migrants and refugees arriving in Yemen. Reports from Human Rights Watch and other groups also show increasing threats to migrants by trafficking and smuggling groups, lack of basic access to food, water, and medical services, and high risks of sexual violence and abuse for women. Migrants and refugees have been rounded up in camps in Yemen pending deportation, with reports that people have died in these camps. There are particular concerns for unaccompanied and separated children who may be more vulnerable to abuse as well as reports that armed groups are forcibly recruiting migrants to fight.

Migrants and refugees who make it to the Saudi border face more challenges, including dangerous and deadly border crossings, harsh detentions, and exploitation as undocumented or irregular workers. Further, in March 2017, Saudi authorities announced a crackdown on undocumented migrants, and IOM estimates that 300,000 Ethiopians had been deported back to Ethiopia by July 2019. Those who return report extreme abuses in long periods of detention before they are deported. The Saudi Arabian government also recently moved to revoke visas for Ethiopian housemaids and cancel all work visas already issued for Ethiopians. However, these moves don’t seem to deter migration on this route – estimates show that migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen has remained close to or over 100,000 people per year since the Saudi deportations began in 2017, with record numbers arriving in the last few months

Worth the risks?

Interviews from MMC’s Mixed Migration Monitoring Mechanism Initiative (4Mi) show that many migrants and refugees are at least partially aware of the risks they face, though the dangers may be much greater than they anticipated. According to recent 4Mi data, 95% of Ethiopians interviewed[1] in East Africa before departing for Yemen felt that they were aware of the risks on the route. Even with some knowledge of the risks, the conflict in Yemen provides new dangers for refugees and migrants and an unpredictable landscape for migrants and refugees to navigate to avoid active fighting, detention, and abuse. As such, in 4Mi interviews with migrants and refugees who had arrived in Yemen in the last year[2], 79% of respondents said they would not encourage others to migrate after their experience traveling along this route.

In spite of these brutal conditions in Yemen and Saudi Arabia, the arrival of (a majority of Ethiopian) migrants and refugees to Yemen will likely continue. Interviews with refugees and migrants in Djibouti and Somalia show that perceived economic opportunities in Saudi Arabia outweigh the risks of the journey, and they feel that migration may be their only chance for a better life. Recent data from 4Mi shows that 94% of Ethiopians interviewed in Somalia and Djibouti were moving to find a better job and of those, 99% hoped to make it to Gulf countries, stating the  better chance of finding a job. With a per capita income of $783 and  a high (17.5%) unemployment rate, Ethiopia remains one of the  poorest countries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have over the years left the country in search of economic opportunities, many joining mixed migration flows to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

The importance of remittances for Ethiopian and Somali households and communities, continued political unrest in the region, and the well-established migration patterns of East Africans traveling to the Gulf for work will continue to drive people to embark on the route to Yemen. 4Mi data shows that many refugees and migrants interviewed on this route (75%) indicated that their decision to leave was influenced by friends and family abroad or returning migrants. Although the information may not be fully accurate, the guidance migrants and refugees receive from their social networks can influence decisions, and inform how they plan their trip. The belief that they will find work in the Gulf, the short duration of the journey and relatively cheap cost of the trip (the average cost from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia is less than 600 USD) continues to make this route popular for migrants and refugees from East Africa.

What next?

How the ongoing conflict in Yemen will impact future mixed migration through the country remains to be fully understood. The influx of people over the last few months indicates that mixed migration from East Africa to Yemen (and onwards to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries) will continue even if the war intensifies. Despite the risks, the potential opportunities for a better life push people to embark on this route, now more than ever. Further, more restrictions on legal options for work could actually increase mixed migration along this route, as recent trends suggest.

Over the next year, challenging political situations and large populations of internally displaced people in Ethiopia and Somalia could further stress limited services and economic opportunities at home, pushing more people to leave in search of jobs and security. With a lack of viable legal options, many migrants and refugees set on finding work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries will find other and often unsafe routes to travel. The deteriorating situation in Yemen will continue to create dangerous situations for migrants and refugees, however traveling through Yemen to reach Saudi Arabia will likely remain a dominant route in the months and years to come.


[1] Analysis of 323 Ethiopians interviewed in Djibouti, Somaliland, and Puntland since January 2017.

[2] 33 interviewees (6 Somalis, 1 Djiboutian and 26 Ethiopians) interviewed between September 2018 and May 2019.