Can we Learn from Yemen and Stop Ignoring Migrants Affected by Armed Conflicts?

Photo: UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017
  Date: Saturday, August 19, 2017
By Mohammed Abdiker, UN Migration Agency Director of Operations and Emergencies
The lack of normal law and order during conflicts like Yemen’s allows criminals to get away with exploiting or even murdering vulnerable migrants for a profit both en route to and in countries at war.

Last week, staff from the UN Migration Agency, all experienced humanitarians operating in Yemen’s war-zone, found the remains of deliberately drowned Ethiopian and Somali teenagers on a remote beach.

The sight of some 50 bodies buried in shallow graves, rapidly dug by the young hands of the distraught survivors in an attempt to bring some dignity to their dead companions was also deeply shocking to our team. There was more to come as survivors recounted how criminal smugglers had forced them at gun-point from the boat they were traveling in, pitching them into Yemen’s notoriously dangerous seas. That the same crime was repeated a day later against another group of migrants with still more children losing their lives.

These tragedies prompted many to ask why were these migrants headed to Yemen — a country being torn apart by war — in the first place.

In fact, some 10,000 migrants enter Yemen each month, the majority making the dangerous crossing through the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait which divides Yemen from Djibouti. But do any of them know about the conflict? It turns out that some do, but some don’t.

The lack of normal law and order during conflicts like Yemen’s allows criminals to get away with exploiting or even murdering vulnerable migrants for a profit both en route to and in countries at war.

Every day in several parts of the world, smugglers, who only see a teenager as a form of currency, sell a Hollywood-type dream to young Ethiopians, young Nigerians, young people with no job or with a job that pays close to nothing. So many of the young migrants we help get home from Libya tell us that the smugglers told them that Europe would be heaven. They did not realize that they would have to pass through hell to reach it.

The smugglers capitalize on the chaos that crises bring to easily exploit migrants, without reprimand. A migrant might pay a smuggler USD 5000 for passage from Nigeria to Europe via Libya. En route, the smuggler will likely abuse them — torture and rape — sending evidence of this back to their families. The families have no choice but to pay to protect the life of their loved ones with money begged and borrowed.

The journey can end up costing closer to USD 10,000. This is without even mentioning the enormous physical and mental costs.

Listening to media reports on the two boat tragedies last week, you would think that migrants in Yemen only came into existence at the moment the news of the deliberate drownings broke. It’s true though. The world had been blind to them and their harrowing experiences until that moment.

In reality, migration between the Horn of Africa and Yemen is centuries old. And why not — the countries involved are relatively close to each other and have similar cultures and religious preferences. While in previous decades there was a large outflow of Yemenis to the Horn of Africa, these days thousands of young Somali and Ethiopian migrants cross the Red and Arabian Sea in search of opportunities in the Gulf countries. Many Yemenis were extremely welcoming of new arrivals to their communities. Some restaurants in the poorest country on the peninsula even gave out free food to migrants.

Before the conflict, people were migrating to and through Yemen. This hasn’t changed much. Now, we just see more people hoping to move through Yemen, rather than choosing it as their final destination. But, like the young people who lost their lives last week, many do not have a choice.

Every week, our staff in Yemen tell us about how more and more young people whose hopes for a better future have been shattered by the ravaging conflict. Young men and women with bullet wounds, severe injuries from explosions, disabling damage, having suffered violent or sexual abuse in a country with a collapsing healthcare system unable to care for them.

No civilian should be a target in any conflict. All civilians should be protected — including migrants.

When the Libyan crisis broke out in 2011, it was clear that the millions of migrants in the country needed protection. We worked with Governments to help evacuate and protect migrants affected by the crisis — operating in a humanitarian system that at the time did not consider migrants nor their particular vulnerabilities within a crisis context.

Six years later, the crisis in Libya endures and there are an estimated 1 million migrants in the country as thousands of migrants arrive to the country each month.

Libya and Yemen have become extremely profitably playgrounds for smugglers. Lapsed border management due to resources being pumped into fighting have made both countries important nodal points on two of the world’s most well-worn irregular migration routes.

Last month, I saw video on Facebook of a Whatsapp video-call between hundreds of starved Ethiopian and Somali migrants being held in a cramped, dark and dirty cellar-like space and one of their relations. Under direction from the criminals holding them hostage, the migrants were detailing the atrocious abuse that they were suffering. I have seen a lot in the twenty plus years of humanitarian work. A young man with scarred skin hanging from his bones, with teeth pulled, open sores and a large concrete on his back could easily be one of the worst. The people speaking in the video said that it had been there for days.

The manipulation of crises by criminals is only in addition to all the deadly dangers that already come with an active war-zone. The US and Philippines-led Migrants in Countries in Crisis initiative has been working with Governments to provide practical guidance on how to decrease the vulnerabilities of migrants in the context of crises and to improve their capacity to both protect their citizens abroad, while also protect migrants on their territories.


This is only a small step. We still need greater acknowledgement of the fact that migrants get caught up in crises and need protection. This protection must be give not just to migrants from “Western” countries but to all, regardless of where their passport was issued or even whether they have a passport. States and other stakeholders have responsibilities in this respect. I sincerely hope that, through the upcoming Global Compact for Migration inter-governmental negotiations, they will address this appalling treatment of fellow humans with the seriousness needed, reflecting the gravity of the situation and the pain suffered.


Mohammed Abdiker is the UN Migration Agency’s Director of Operations and Emergencies. This blog was originally published on