Tens of thousands of African migrants continue to flow annually to Yemen, arriving at the coasts of Aden, Abyan and Shabwa, from the Horn of Africa, mainly from the Djiboutian Ibok and the Somalian Bosaso coasts, by boat across the Gulf of Aden. The deadly voyage is a long miserable sea adventure fraught with death and great dangers.

Armed conflicts, poor economic conditions, injustice, oppression and persecution are the most important drivers for illegal immigration which the Horn of Africa countries have been plagued by over the past three decades. The beginning regular migration from the Horn of Africa to Yemen dates back to 1990 during the civil war in Somalia.

Yemen received hundreds of thousands of Somalis despite its already difficult economic conditions caused by the lack of resources, let alone the effects of the first Gulf War that negatively affected the Yemeni people at the time. The Yemeni government opened their nation to the migrants, granted them asylum, and even allowed them to work, move and integrate into the Yemeni society freely.

Migration from the Horn of Africa continues to increase but with a significant reduction in the number of Somali migrants. There is an evident voluntary repatriation of significant number of them to Somalia thanks to a relative stability of the conditions there. Conversely, the number of African-Ethiopian migrants coming from the Horn of Africa to Yemen increased gradually from 2007 and has peaked in the past two years.

Given its proximity to the Horn of Africa, Yemen is an attractive destination for illegal African migrants who intend to cross Yemen to continue to the trip to oil-rich neighboring Arabian Gulf states.

With a coastline extending to 3000 km on the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, tightly controlling illegal access is particularly difficult and migrants’ access to them is made possible, easy, and less expensive.

Fatima, an African refugee from Somalia, in the Yemeni city of Marib.

In spite of the relentless war in Yemen which has entered its sixth year, and the hardship African migrants face, the painful accidents they face during their journey; all these dangers did not discourage the migrants from taking on this perilous journey in search of livelihood and job opportunities in the Arabian Gulf states, mainly Saudi Arabia.

The migration route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen is considered the busiest migration route in the world.

According to a report the UN posted on its website on 14th February 2020, “The number of illegal African immigrants arriving in Yemen from the Horn of Africa through the Gulf of Aden is 11,500 monthly, with a total of more than 138,000 immigrants in 2019, compared to 150,000 African migrants arriving in the country in 2018.

The number of migrants during these two years have surpassed those who crossed the Mediterranean towards Europe.” Migrants from rural areas, such as Oromia, Amhara, and Tigray in Ethiopia account for 92% of migrants of the Horn of Africa, with 90% of them intending to cross from Yemen to Saudi Arabia.

Migrants crossing the Yemeni lands on foot.

Dangers and Horrors of the Migratory Journey

During their sea voyage from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, African migrants experience traumatic accidents that have led to the death of dozens of migrants because of the smugglers’ greed for money, without any consideration for their safety. Migrants are transported in shabby boats which lack any safety devices that can reduce the potential hazards they may encounter at sea.

It is worth recalling two of the biggest catastrophic accidents involving African migrants at sea. Reuters cited the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Djibouti in 2019 and reported the drowning of at least 38 migrants and the loss of dozens after two boats crammed with Ethiopian immigrants capsized at sea off the coast of Djibouti shortly after they started sailing toward Yemen amidst the strong winds.

In a separate inhuman and shocking accident in 2017, this time off the Yemeni coast, a UN report on Yemen, also cited the IOM, and stated that 70 African migrants have drowned and dozens were lost in the Arabian Sea off the coast of the Yemeni Shabwa province. According to IOM, “up to 160 migrants were reportedly thrown into the sea from a boat today by the smugglers. Five bodies have been recovered so far, and around 50 are reported missing.”

The IOM’s chief in Yemen Laurent de Boeck, commented on the incident and quoted some of the survivors. He told France 24 news agency that “the smuggler pushed the migrants to the sea after he spotted people he thought were representatives of the Yemeni authorities,” De Bock continued, “They (survivors) also told us that the smuggler returned to Somalia to carry on his work and transfer more migrants to Yemen on the same route.”

The two accidents were “shocking and inhumane”, De Boeck added, clearly indicating the impunity of the perpetrators.

Today, migrant drownings are reoccurring in many of these voyages but with fewer victims.

A map (In Arabic) showing the migration route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, pinpointing the places of departure and arrival.

African Migrants’ Suffering from the Tragic Conditions in Yemen

The internationally recognized government of Yemen continues to demand from the international community and international organizations to provide assistance and find a solution for illegal African immigrants arriving to the country. However, such demands are more urgent today than ever due to the increase in immigration journeys to Yemen as well as the number of migrants and asylum-seekers who opt to remain and work in Yemen.

According to United Nations’ Immigration Organization, the number of migrants exceeded 276,000 Ethiopian and Somali refugees.

Moreover, there are tens of thousands of African migrants who have been stranded in Ma’rib province and in southern governorates since the first quarter of 2020. These poor people are hoping to cross Yemen and reach Saudi Arabia through northern Yemen. Their mission is not easy as the warring parties have cut off roads and put an end to their dreams.

In the current circumstances and the tragic conditions in Yemen, and according to many international reports,

“Yemen is experiencing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, where more than 80% of the population need some form of assistance, 20 million people face food insecurity, 14 million need urgent humanitarian intervention, and the number of displaced Yemenis at the beginning of 2020 was estimated at 4 million.”
as stated in a recent UN report.

Due to the ongoing war since 2015 between the legitimate government backed by the Saudi-led Arab coalition and the Houthi rebel militias backed by Iran, Yemen has suffered from a ruined economy and a breakdown of infrastructure that has left the basic services provided by the government in a horrific state—almost crippled.

Crimes and Violations Committed Against Migrants

Migrant continue to endure ill-treatment as horrific stories surface in the media about their detention and life-threatening experiences they face before even arriving to Yemen. They are particularly ill-treated by troops that are in the areas outside of the control of the legitimate Yemeni government.

Deterring human smugglers and gangs operating on the coasts has become a challenge for security personnel. As a result, African migrants are constantly subjected to grave violations such as kidnappings, detention, torture and rape by these gangs. Many cases were documented about migrants who were only able to win their freedom from these gangs when they relatives paid ransoms. Dozens of international and local organizations have documented kidnappings and torture of large numbers of migrants by these gangs.

These gangs are run by Ethiopian and Yemeni criminals who run the smuggling networks from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia, with the complicity of some corrupt security officials.

Migrants and asylum-seekers in the closed detention center Wu which belongs to the Ministry of Fisheries

More than two years ago, a shocking report published by Human Rights Watch revealed that hundreds of African migrants and asylum seekers were subjected to arbitrary detention, torture, rape, beatings, and forced deportation in a temporary official detention site.

The site was used as a research center by the Ministry of Fisheries, and such crimes and violations were done under the direct supervision of the officer and the commander of the center, according to (HRW) the report.

A letter to this effect has been sent by Human Rights Watch to the current Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of the legitimate government, Major General Ahmed al-Misiri, who reviewed and documented these crimes and violations after meeting with migrants and hearing their testimonies.

Human Rights Watch received a feedback to the letter from Major General Ahmed al-Misiri, who indicated that the detention was done by the security troops of the aforementioned Transitional Council. He added in the letter that he had instructed to immediately close the detention center, and to suspend the officer responsible for managing the detention center.

Places of Detention and for Asylum Seekers in Yemen

The increasing number of African migrants claiming asylum in Yemen and the thousands arriving in the southern provinces of Aden and Abyan has raised concerns among the local residents. In response to this crisis, the security authorities detained thousands of them in police centers and then transferred them to two football stadiums–one pitch in Aden and another in Abyan. Both football fields were partially destroyed in 2015 during what was called the “Battles of liberation of Aden and Abyan”—a bloody confrontation that occurred between the Iranian-backed Houthi militias and militants that supported the late Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

African migrants and asylum seekers in their place of detention as they receive their share of drinking water

The third detention center is located in a camp inside a military base in Lahj province, which is not equipped to receive or accommodate large numbers of African migrants or asylum seekers.

It is difficult to obtain clean water or adequate food, nor do these centers have showers or medical staff to take care of the health of those held there. As a result, dozens of migrants died of fever, diarrhea and cholera.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was directly supervising the first and second centers in the football fields while it indirectly supervised the third one because it is located inside a military camp. The IOM has also provided some basic support such as clean water and built a number of toilets. Local residents and organizations have also contributed by providing aid to migrant detainees. However, such assistance from organizations or residents is not enough compared to the numbers of those migrants in need, which makes their detention conditions tragic and inhumane.

Migrants Cross Yemeni Land on Their Way to Saudi Arabia

African migrants are so desperate to reach Saudi Arabia that they have begun making the journey on foot from Aden through Northern-Yemen and through the areas of Manbeh in Sa’ada province, the stronghold of the Iranian-backed Houthi militas—crossing hundreds of kilometers just to reach Saudi soil.

To reach Saudi Arabia they could walk an estimated 860 kilometers on foot. Roughly, only about 10% to 20% of migrants reach Saudi Arabia—the land of opportunity where they usually get jobs according to testimonies from migrants who survived the perilous journey.

Those who don’t make it are usually arrested and detained by the Saudi border guards and imprisoned until they are repatriated to Addis Ababa. The Saudi authorities are known to be tough against violators of regular residency laws, and are taking firm measures in tracking those who cross their border or violate the laws.

Immigrants Trapped in Ma’rib Under Inhumane Conditions

Tens of thousands of African migrants are stranded in Ma’rib province after they had traveled 466 km on foot, which is more than half the distance to reach their final destination in Saudi Arabia. These numbers are increasing since January 2020 as a result of the continued flow of migrants to Yemen. In Ma’rib, the fighting has expanded in the joint border areas between Ma’rib and Al-Jawf provinces between the legitimate government troops in control of Ma’rib, and the Houthi militias controlling Al-Jawf—-violent battles that have erupted between the two sides and continue to threaten the lives of civilians and migrants. Al-Jawf is considered the next stopover after Ma’rib, and Saada province for migrants on their way to Saudi Arabia.

My trip to Meet Migrants Stuck in Ma’rib

I packed my bags and traveled to Ma’rib province, which enjoys relative stability and security, to closely view the conditions of the stranded migrants and conduct interviews with a number of them to cover their illegal journey from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia.

The city, with its streets and markets, seems like an African city. Dozens of African migrants were taking shelter under shadows of trees or buildings. Some were wandering around the markets, while others were standing at the gates of restaurants in the hope that people would give them some food. They were all showing signs of fatigue and stress.

I visited the places where they sleep at night, in neighborhoods and streets and on the sidewalks of buildings, and I saw them sleeping on pieces of cardboard. Some listened to African music—a taste of a home they may never see again.

I spoke to some of those who could speak little Arabic, and felt the depth of their disappointment and saw the signs of despair on their faces as they had difficulties in obtaining food or water or even finding a place for bathing. They complained that they had no assistance from the government, international or domestic organizations.

Their dire situation has evoked sympathy from some Ma’rib residents who provided them with drinking water, food and clothes.

After repeated visits to their places of gathering, we took some photos and documented the details of their trip—from the starting point in the rural areas in the Oromia region in Ethiopia to the Djibouti coasts until they arrived to Yemen.

Saeed Muhammad Musa Describes the Journey of Death

We met Ethiopian immigrant Saeed Muhammad Musa who is in his mid-twenties. Musa arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa for the second time. He said he came to Ma’rib five months ago among a large group of migrants. They were waiting for the roads to open so that they can continue their path and cross from Al-Jawf, through Saada province and then to their ultimate destination—Saudi Arabia.

Ethiopian migrant Saeed Muhammad Musa

At the beginning, Saeed described their migration from the Horn of Africa to Saudi Arabia through Yemen as a journey of “death” which only desperate people who have lost hope of earning a living back home would embark on in search of livelihood outside their homeland.

“I and twenty-six other young people from Khamisa, one of the rural areas of Oromia in Ethiopia, sold almost all our belongings to have the money necessary for the journey. Some of us sold their livestock of sheep or cows, and some sold their home furniture. The average amount required was approximately 15,000 birr which is equivalent to (US$500). After acquiring the money, we searched for a smuggler and we found one who set a date for us to start the journey.

Each of us paid 3,000 birr to the smuggler in exchange for being a guide and to provide us with protection from possible gangs who could attacks us during the trip from from Ethiopia to Djibouti. We learned later that though that the attackers and gangs are part of the smuggling networks.”

“When we started walking, we were nearly 100 people from our region and the neighboring Oromia province, and each of us were carrying some biscuits and a bottle of water of about one and a half liters. We were sharing as little biscuits and water as possible throughout the journey that lasted about eight days on foot in the midlands of barren plains and deserts, and under high temperatures. When we ran out of water, we had to drink unclean water that was not even suitable for livestock. This caused some of us severe diarrhea, and some fell from fatigue and disease as a result of drought, thirst, or sunstroke. But the immigrant regiment had to continue and we could not stop for any reason. This was the rule.

“While we were on that desert road, we found bodies or remains of bones or skulls of migrants who died on the way. According to the program prepared by the smugglers, we had to stop for rest or sleep in some areas or small villages on our way in return for a sum of money we paid to the residents of those villages. We had to buy water for five times its price.”

“When we reached the borders of Djibouti, the smuggler handed us over to another smuggler who was waiting for us and led us to the road from the Djiboutian border with Ethiopia to the Djiboutian coast. Each of us had to pay 1,500 birr to the guide to allow us to cross that getaway and protect us from gangs. We also had to bribe the Djiboutian border guards after we were loaded onto large trucks so that we could cross the borders and security points.

We traveled the rest of the distance to the Djiboutian coast on foot, and had to stay in shelters that were yards provided by smugglers, in exchange for money. The smugglers also prepared and coordinated with boat smugglers to take us from the Djiboutian coast to the Yemeni coast.”

We went out to the Djiboutian coast before dawn. Then, the boats arrived on time, and the second smuggler handed us over to a third one who undertook the task of transporting us to the Yemeni coast. Each of us had to pay an amount of 2,500 birr including the boat fare. The boat leader was a Yemeni man and his aides were from Ethiopia and Somalia. I think their role was to help him communicate with us. The sea voyage took us six hours until we ultimately arrived in Aden.

We were not subjected to detention by security men or gangsters upon arrival in Yemen, but one of the migrants we know was detained and beaten by the smugglers in Aden, and he was only released after his relatives sent them a money order of $250.”

“All migrants, without exception, know the leader of these gangs that attack them. He is an Ethiopian man called Adam Abdisha who lives in Sana’a and is married to a Yemeni woman and owns real estate in Sana’a.

Perhaps his identity and nationality are Yemeni, and he has extensive relations with corrupt Yemeni security men who facilitate his work by turning a blind eye to his crimes and to his gang members. He is wanted by the Ethiopian government which confiscated some of his properties. Abdisha had become the smuggling gang leader after the death of former Yemeni leader Abdul-Qawi years ago. This information is widely known by almost all migrants. Yemeni sources also suggested that this information is correct.”


The continued flow of illegal immigration from the Horn of Africa in such huge numbers is posing challenges to both transit and destination countries in view of the economic burdens and security concerns they cause, not to mention the grave and horrific violations of human rights done by human trafficking gangs. Such a situation necessitates studying the root causes of the phenomenon of asylum seeking and migration and searching for effective solutions through coordination and consultation between the concerned countries (Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Djibouti and Ethiopia). It is necessary to coordinate efforts and approve a joint action plan that serve as the base for collective action and achieve a strong and sustainable partnership to address the illegal immigration phenomenon.

The international community and the United Nations must be supported and pressured to implement the approved action plan.

Yemen needs assistance to provide care for those displaced by the war and provide them with a life-line. Serious investigations must reveal the crimes and violations against migrants and asylum seekers. Similarly, the smuggling gangs and their collaborators must be prosecuted, and deterrent measures should be taken against them in the concerned countries.

Yemen was among the first countries to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and it is also a member of the International Organization for Migration. This calls for it to carry out its duties towards migrants and asylum seekers in line with Yemen’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees should provide all possible assistance to the Yemeni government in preparing legislation, legal systems and the regulations governing refugee affairs and preparing them for a legal framework on refugees and asylum seekers that is fully consistent with Yemen’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.

It is important to involve more human rights and humanitarian civil society organizations as partners in the implementation of programs and projects. It is essential that a center is established for monitoring the flow of immigration to Yemen, registering migrants arriving there as well as those who departed the Yemeni soil, and issuing temporary residence cards for asylum-seekers to enable them to move and be identified until the asylum applications are ratified.

It is also imperative to decide on asylum applications submitted without racial discrimination in accordance with the laws and the refugee status agreements. The Yemeni government and the media should work towards raising awareness campaigns to reduce the effects of racial discrimination against migrants and asylum-seekers in Yemen, provide them with health care and take measures to protect them from infectious diseases, especially from the COVID-19 spreading across Yemen.

It is also imperative to release all detainees who are migrants and asylum seekers, and to take necessary and adequate measures to ensure appropriate care and rehabilitation for victims of sexual abuse who lost their dignity during their trips and to put an end to the exploitation and trafficking of refugees and asylum-seekers.

Mansour Al-Rasmi
Mansour Al-Rasmi

Academic and investigative journalist based in Yemen.

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