By Ty Joplin
At the end of 2018, a report published by the The International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) discovered that Yemen had received about 150,000 refugees, which far exceeded Europe’s own refugee intake of 107,000 that same year (via the Mediterranean Sea). Though thousands more arrived to Europe by land, the sum total of Europe's intake was still less than Yemen. The vast majority of those fleeing to Yemen are Ethiopians, who hope to find work and stability in Saudi Arabia.
The report went mostly unnoticed by major media outlets, even though its findings speak to two urgent yet under-reported issues.
First, that Europe is lagging behind its international obligations to care for refugees from the most vulnerable parts of the world.
Second, that the ongoing crisis in Ethiopia, which is so desperate that hundreds of thousands feel safer in the world’s worst humanitarian disaster zone, is not receiving the attention a crisis on this level warrants.
It is simply not in the headlines.
The 2010s have been a decade marred by mass exoduses, refugee flows and forced migration. By 2017, 65.6 million people had been displaced, far higher than the total that were forced to flee their homes and countries in World War II.
Developed countries in the Global North, including the United States and those in Europe, have played an indirect role in exacerbating these crises by closing themselves off with restrictive quotas while letting economic and political refugees smuggle themselves via dangerous routes into war zones.
Europe’s Negligence To International Norms on Refugees
Bodies of 70 Ethiopian migrants are placed ashore after they drowned trying to cross Bab al-Mandeb in 2014 (AFP/FILE)
In 2018, according to the IOM, whose authoritative studies on forced migration inform the international consensus on the issue, found that nearly 150,000 migrants arrived in Yemen. This represented a 50 percent increase over 2017, where about 100,000 arrived. In stark contrast, the IOM also estimated that about 107,000 migrants fled into Europe via the Mediterranean Sea route.
Although Europe is the final destination for the majority of refugees fleeing there and Yemen is a mid-way point between Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia, a sizable portion of Ethiopians end up staying in Yemen to work low-skilled or agricultural jobs harvesting khat.
The grim contrast in refugee intake generates an important ethical consideration, even if the nationalities and motivations of the refugees smuggling themselves into Yemen versus Europe are not the same. That is: while European countries continue to try and close their border off to further refugees, there are still hundreds of thousands fleeing persecution and crushing poverty in search of some stability and rights.
These refugee risking their lives to enter into the besieged, war-torn Yemen shows that the humanitarian need has not diminished, but the political will to meet them has.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights gives individuals the right to seek asylum from persecution, giving states the subsequent duty to accept and consider asylum seekers. The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees expands upon this by giving states duties toward refugees’ protection.
These are obligations European states are manifestly failing to uphold.
As the IOM has documented, hundreds of thousands Ethiopian economic and political refugees have fled into Yemen, and has not slowed in spite of the war ravaging the country.
Without assurances from European states to facilitate their travel and livelihood to the north, Ethiopians are forced to go east, crossing through deserts by foot, seas in rickety boats, an active war zone and the potential to be captured and sold into slavery.
Ethiopians’ Silent Crisis
Corpses of Ethiopian migrants found on the route from Ethiopia to Yemen (IOM)
The second piece of information the IOM report reveals is the sheer magnitude of Ethiopians’ struggle; an issue that rarely received any media attention from major news outlets yet constitutes one of the world’s most chronic humanitarian catastrophes.
“For years, Ethiopians have fled to the Gulf states fleeing repression from government security forces and a lack of economic opportunities,” Felix Horne, a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch for the Horn of Africa told Al Bawaba.
“Arbitrary arrest, torture in detention, and discrimination based on perceived political opinion was commonplace.”
Though a new reformist Prime Minister in Ethiopia has mitigated some of these issues, many of his policies have not reached the country’s rural areas. Meanwhile, Ethiopia’s government continuously denies that its country’s years fleeing population has anything with repression, according to Horne.
The route Ethiopians must survive to reach Yemen is perilous.
They must first cross Djibouti’s desert, and often do so on foot. It is unknown how many die along this route, but according to a report from The Guardian, it is enough to poison the water supply along this route, which in turn makes it more difficult as there are no safe water reserves to access along the way.
One group of three from Jimma, Ethiopia told a reporter that they had no food for the walk from Dire Dawa to the coastline, which took them six full days. They were forced to abandon seven of their fellow travelers in the desert. “We’ve had no help from anyone,” a 10-year old orphan, the youngest traveler in the trio, explained. The temperature in the desert regularly exceeds 50 degrees celsius, or 122 degrees fahrenheit.
According to the IOM report, about a fifth of those traveling this route are minors, many of whom are unaccompanied.
“Around Lake Assal [a crater lake situated between the Ethiopian border and Obock, Djibouti], there are often corpses and human bones. They are the remains of migrants who died of hunger and thirst,” said one observer for France24.
“There are dozens of them every year.”
Arriving in Djibouti offers no respite. In June 2018, between 30 and 50 Ethiopians died of a cholera outbreak in the country.
Once they reach the coastline, they must cross the Bab al-Mandeb, Arabic for “Gate of Tears,” on small, rickety boats operated by smugglers. Though definite statistics on fatality rates on this part of the journey aren’t accessible, a journalist for the New Yorker reported about 3,500 have died in the last ten years trying to cross the strait.
“Migration is a massive business in Ethiopia. In addition to the many thousands of Ethiopians that migrate, several million Eritrean and Somali refugees are in Ethiopia, providing a constant market for the many traffickers and smugglers,” Horne relayed to Al Bawaba.
“Historically, many of the traffickers and smugglers had close connections to the Ethiopian government and the security apparatus,” he added.
Once they get to Yemen, many of them are rounded up by security forces and thrown into detention and concentration camps run by the Yemeni government.
Somalian and Ethiopian migrants are rounded up by smugglers (AFP/FILE)
An April 2018 report found guards at a camp in Aden, Yemen beat migrants with “steel bars and sticks, whipped them, kicked and punched them, threatened to kill or deport them, sexually assaulted them, and fatally shot at least two men.” Guards then regularly send refugees out to sea by the hundreds in tiny boats, where several have sunk, killing everyone onboard.
One former detainee reported sexual assault as a nightly ritual the guards would use to terrorize the migrants: “Every night, they would take one, to rape them,” a former detainee said. “Not all of them. The small ones. The little ones. I know seven boys who were sexually assaulted… You could hear what was happening.”
Inside the camp, guards refused to hear that Ethiopians were there to escape from political persecution, and instead documented them as opportunistic job seekers, which exempts them from international protections and gives the guards an excuse to send them back to Djibouti.
Yemen is currently one of the most inhospitable countries for human life: 22 of 27 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, over 14 million are at risk of famine, half a million children at malnourished and the economy has come to a halt. All this due to a war intentionally designed to maximize human suffering.
“Only a very small minority make it to Saudi Arabia without facing at least one incident of abuse,” noted Danielle Botti of the regional mixed migration secretariat (RMMS).
The ones who are able to make it to Saudi are often forced to work more than 20 hours a day. Their phones and passports are confiscated and many repot sexual and physical abuse. Saudi Arabia’s legal system for migrant workers, called the ‘kefala system,’ is notorious for allowing systemic abuses by employers to go unpunished, since the migrant employee has little to no legal protections.
To many of these concerns, one Ethiopian teacher from the Wollo region asks: “So what?”
“I’ve always been amazed at how many Ethiopians heading to Yemen and Saudi Arabia fleeing repression seem to be generally aware of the security situation and threats they will face, and yet they tell me they still feel safer than they were back home in Ethiopia,” Horne told Al Bawaba.
“That’s the life of the Ethiopian people,” expressed the Ethiopian teacher.
“We fear Ethiopia more than the war in Yemen,” a friend of his added.
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