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Rape at sea and forced transit in Yemen: The plight of African immigrants headed to Saudi Arabia

Rape at sea and forced transit in Yemen: The plight of African immigrants headed to Saudi Arabia

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اغتصاب في البحر وترانزيت إجباري في اليمن… عن مأساة المهاجرين الأفارقة للسعودية

On June 10th, it was reported that 49 African migrants, including 31 women and 6 children, died, and 140 others went missing after a smuggling boat capsized off the coast of Shabwah Governorate in eastern Yemen. The boat, which departed from Somalia, was carrying 115 Somali migrants and 145 Ethiopians, including 90 women, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Many African migrants dream of reaching Saudi Arabia but resort to illegal migration, beginning with a perilous sea journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen. Those who survive must gather money demanded by smugglers before proceeding to Saudi Arabia. They often remain in Yemen, taking on arduous or poorly paid jobs to earn the required funds.

African migrants dream of reaching Saudi Arabia, but many resort to illegal migration, embarking on perilous sea journeys with survival rates that are almost non-existent. In June, 49 African migrants, including 31 women and 6 children, died when a smuggling boat capsized off the coast of Yemen, leaving 140 others missing.

This investigation by Raseef22 presents firsthand accounts of thousands of African migrants driven by economic hardship, who cross Yemen hoping to enter Saudi Arabia. They endure a hazardous sea journey, only to face inhumane exploitation by some Yemeni employers. Desperate, they accept any work and wage, clinging to the hope of crossing the border into Saudi Arabia. Others, fleeing dire conditions in their home countries, settle in Yemen, taking on any work to provide for their families without attempting the risky journey to Saudi Arabia.

The presence of African migrants in Yemen

African migrants arriving in Yemen are primarily concentrated in governorates close to the Saudi border, facilitating their entry into Saudi Arabia via smuggling networks. Significant numbers of African migrants are found in Saada Governorate (north), Al-Bayda Governorate (central Yemen), Dhale, Hajjah, Lahij, Abyan, and Aden (south). Shabwah Governorate (east) serves as the primary entry point for Africans into these Yemeni regions.

Despite enduring harsh living conditions in Yemen, many migrants consider them better than the circumstances that forced them to leave their homeland.

The types of work African migrants engage in vary by region, but they commonly receive meager compensation. In Aden, most work for cleaning companies, hospitals, and large commercial markets, while a few work in fishing, restaurants, or car washes. In governorates like Al-Bayda, Dhale, Hajjah, and Saada, most Africans work on qat farms.

Exploitation on qat farms

In Dhale Governorate's Al-Hussein District, dozens of Ethiopian migrants work on qat farms, earning less than their Yemeni counterparts despite putting in the same hours and effort. Engineer Abdulilah Qassem, a resident of Al-Hussein District, confirms, "The number of Africans in Al-Husain District is large, most of them work on qat farms, and they receive lower wages than other workers." The highest wage an African worker can earn on these farms is 130,000 Yemeni riyals per month (less than 74 US dollars), whereas locals earn at least 180,000 riyals per month.

African workers on qat farms work seven to eight hours a day. Abdulilah comments, "Only God knows if these wages are sufficient for the workers. But they manage somehow."

Ibrahim Al-Shujaifi, who previously worked with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and participated in a field survey in Dhale Governorate, tells Raseef22, "There are many Africans in Dhale working for daily wages, watering and taking care of qat farms for meager pay, especially in Al-Hussein District." He adds, "I found many African workers living in deplorable conditions in the lands around the qat farms, suffering from isolation, homesickness, fatigue, and other dangers, especially when dealing with poisons and pesticides while spraying qat plants."

Mazen Mahmoud, a representative of the International Organization for Migration in Dhale Governorate, says, "The presence of Africans in our governorate is significant. They work in various jobs, in restaurants and car wash stations, as well as on qat farms. Some also work for contractors in concrete and construction work."

Living in harsh conditions

Salem (a pseudonym), an Ethiopian migrant working as a guard for a qat farm in Dhale Governorate, requested anonymity for fear of losing his job. He works around the clock, watering the qat farm and spraying pesticides. Salem tells Raseef22 that he lives in “a temporary, makeshift shelter made of cardboard and tarps, with no bathroom”. Salem, like many others, receives monthly wages averaging 90,000 riyals and works under harsh conditions in unsuitable environments.

This investigation by Raseef22 presents firsthand accounts of thousands of African migrants driven by economic hardship, who cross Yemen hoping to enter Saudi Arabia. They endure a hazardous sea journey, only to face inhumane exploitation by some employers, accepting any work and wage

Yemen: A forced transit

Ansar, a young Ethiopian, migrated with ten friends on a small smuggling boat, using Yemen as a transit point to reach their main destination, Saudi Arabia. He says, "The route to Saudi Arabia across the border has become unsafe. Many have lost their lives trying to cross into Saudi territory, so we prefer to stay here." Ansar now works on qat farms in a village in Rada'a, Al-Bayda Governorate, for less than $6 a day, a job he secured after moving to the village where he plans to stay and settle.

The low pay is not Ansar's main issue; it is the scarcity of work, which is only needed every four days. This problem affects most Africans working on qat farms there. Ansar and his companions share difficult living conditions, residing in an abandoned room on the outskirts of the village with no windows or bathroom, and traveling long distances to fetch water. Despite these harsh conditions, they consider them better than those that forced them to leave their homeland.

Many qat farm owners in Rada'a, Al-Bayda Governorate, prefer to employ migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia due to their hard work and diligence at lower wages compared to Yemeni workers. Abdullah Mas’ad, a qat farm owner, employs three Ethiopians and explains, "Employing Africans on my land is beneficial because they receive about half the wage of a Yemeni worker."

Raseef22 met many Africans in Dhale Governorate working on qat farms who expressed dissatisfaction with their situation and financial compensation, considering heading to Saudi Arabia. The journey from their home countries to Yemen, via sea through Djibouti, and then on to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, is perilous and arduous, often claiming lives. The coasts of Yemen and Djibouti frequently witness drowning incidents of African migrants trying to reach Yemen as a transit point to Saudi Arabia, due to overcrowded smuggler boats.

Rape at sea

Drowning at sea or being caught by Saudi authorities are not the only fears for African migrants heading to the Kingdom illegally. Many African women migrants are subjected to rape during their journey at sea on smugglers' boats and by human trafficking gangs. Rita (pseudonym), an Ethiopian woman who recently arrived in Saudi Arabia after a grueling smuggling journey, says, "Many women are raped at sea during their journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia. That's why I went to a gynecologist to get a contraceptive implant. I was afraid I might get pregnant if I was raped, which would end my venture."

Rita's suffering continued upon her arrival in Saudi Arabia, where she found work as a maid. She recounts being exploited by an Ethiopian woman who coordinates domestic work for undocumented migrants, demanding 300 Saudi riyals per month for providing the job. Hiding from Saudi authorities, Rita stays in the house where she works, fearing arrest due to her illegal residency status.

Trapped in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia imposes strict laws and penalties on migrant workers and foreign laborers who violate residency regulations. These begin with several days of imprisonment followed by deportation. However, in the past five years, Saudi Arabia has started to ease some procedures and repeatedly called on violators to rectify their status, which requires money.

African migrants in Yemen face inhumane exploitation by some employers, forced to accept any work and any wage, clinging to the hope of eventually crossing into Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, from Ethiopia, managed to enter Saudi Arabia and found work in a restaurant in Riyadh. He says, "I am now in Saudi Arabia, but I left my family behind in Yemen. The situation here is difficult because the visit visa I entered with expired a long time ago. I cannot move around freely, and at any moment, I could be caught by the authorities and deported. I am stuck here, unable to return easily to my family in Yemen, and I can't find suitable work in Saudi Arabia."

Many workers from the Horn of Africa in Saudi Arabia, including Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, try to obtain visit or work visas, which require more money and time. Citizens from unstable African countries can obtain visit visas for religious pilgrimage directly from their home countries, but work visas must be processed through special recruitment offices in neighboring countries like Bahrain and Oman. Saudi Arabia deports any African workers found in violation of immigration laws back to their home countries.

Despite strict penalties and the threat of deportation in Saudi Arabia, many African migrants, like Mohammed, live in constant fear and uncertainty, unable to find suitable work or return to their families.

Escape to war

Mahmoud Mohamed Youssef, a 40-year-old Somali, fled the horrors of civil war in his country and arrived in Aden, southern Yemen, nearly ten years ago. Unaware that another war would soon break out in Yemen, Mahmoud endured and settled in Aden, currently working in car washing to support his family. He earns between 6,000 and 10,000 riyals a day. He says, "Saudi Arabia is not my primary destination. It is no longer the main destination for many migrants from Somalia and the Horn of Africa because it does not provide the income they seek, nor do they find suitable jobs there, in addition to the difficulty of crossing the border into it."

Despite the challenges, African migrants continue to risk their lives, hoping for a better future.

Response from UNHCR

Raseef22 contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Yemen to inquire about their role in addressing the plight and suffering of African migrants in the country. The UNHCR stated that it works closely with various partners, including governmental and non-governmental entities and UN agencies, to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees receive essential services and assistance. Their approach prioritizes integrating refugees into existing local systems and services rather than creating parallel structures. They called for the inclusion of refugees in national labor laws and support for vocational training programs, emphasizing decent work and self-reliance.

The UNHCR added, "While labor standards fall within the responsibilities of states, the UNHCR provides legal support to individuals facing labor disputes to ensure their rights are respected. We also sometimes engage directly with employers, particularly regarding recruitment, industrial training, and small business initiatives. However, broader monitoring of working conditions, including workplace health and safety and payment issues, falls under the state's duties." They noted that complaints specific to migrants fall within the mandate of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which specializes in addressing their concerns.

Migrant numbers

In April 2024, the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Yemen reported the entry of 1,479 migrants into Yemen, a 23% decrease from the 1,930 migrants reported the previous month. The first quarter of 2024 saw the number of African migrants arriving in Yemen drop to its lowest rate in the past six years. Monthly data from the IOM indicates that 5,411 African migrants entered Yemen between January and March 2024, the lowest rate compared to the same period in previous years except for 2021, which saw a significant decrease due to COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

The number of African migrants arriving in Yemen dropped to its lowest rate in six years, yet the need for humanitarian aid remains critical, with projections that over 300,000 migrants will require assistance in 2024.

The IOM attributed the recent decline in the number of incoming migrants to a joint security campaign against smuggling networks, which began in August 2023, aiming to reduce their crossing into Yemen towards Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. The annual number of migrants arriving in Yemen tripled from 2021 to 2023, rising from about 27,000 to over 90,000. It is projected that in 2024, more than 300,000 migrants, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia, will need humanitarian aid and protection services, especially women and girls, according to an IOM statement issued last May.

Conversely, many Africans in Yemen have opted to return to their home countries voluntarily. IOM data revealed that a total of 2,232 stranded migrants in Yemen, mostly Ethiopians, returned to their countries under the Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program from January to March 2024. Meanwhile, 14,500 African migrants remain stranded in areas controlled by the internationally recognized Yemeni government, including 5,000 in Aden, 5,000 in Shabwah, and 4,500 in Marib, all living in dire conditions.

In April 2024, the IOM's Displacement Tracking Matrix recorded a total of 819 migrants leaving Yemen, either voluntarily or through deportation by boat. This group consisted of 91% men, 8% women, and less than 1% children.

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