Smuggled to Yemen, Dealing with Conflict

Young Ethiopian migrants wait to be picked up by smugglers, who will help them cross from Obock, Djibouti to Yemen. Photo: Natalie Oren/UN Migration Agency (IOM) 2017
  Date: Sunday, August 20, 2017
By Olivia Headon, UN Migration Agency’s Information Officer for Emergencies
Every month, around 10,000 migrants enter Yemen. Their hope is to reach the Gulf countries but they often become targets of the conflict, never making it to their destinations. Here are two of their stories.


Abdullah grew up in Jimma, the largest city in south-western Ethiopia. Being one of seven children meant for Abdullah that his schooling ended at just 14.

Still a young teenager, Abdullah travelled to a town near Ethiopia’s border with Sudan. He lived there for two years working in mineral mines. No longer able to endure the harsh conditions, he found another job as a warehouse guard. He was still barely making enough to survive, let alone send back to his parents in Jimma.

On a day off work, 22-year-old Abdullah was hanging out with friends. One told him that they were going to Saudi Arabia in the next few days, where better jobs were easier to come by. Abdullah decided to go too. His brother had make the journey a few months earlier.

First, they had to trek to the Somali coast. There, with some money he had managed to save over the last few years, Abdullah paid a migrant smuggler to get him across the Arabian Sea to Yemen.

He stayed for a few days in a village near the Yemeni coast before meeting up with his brother, who was working in a farm, in Rada’a, a city in south-east Yemen. Abdullah rested in Rada’a for two days and then joined up with some other Ethiopians. The group managed to secure a car that would bring them north to the country’s border with Saudi Arabia.

Just outside Rada’a, the car hit a landmine.

Since the conflict began in March 2015, parties to the conflict have buried landmines throughout Yemen. Landmines and unexploded ordinances are a very serious threat to the safety of people living or traveling through the contaminated areas in 15 of Yemen’s 22 Governorates.

Abdullah was taken to one of Yemen’s surviving hospitals. One of the results of the conflict is a healthcare system near collapse. Abdullah’s foot and hand were badly injured, disabling him. Doctors without Borders provided him with urgent medical care. They referred him to IOM, the UN Migration Agency, when he told them that he wanted to go back to Ethiopia. IOM helped him with a place to stay, food, psychological support, medical care and, most importantly to Abdullah, to get home.

Ali Ismail had no idea about the war in Yemen before he arrived. The 20-year-old used to live with his wife in Harar, Ethiopia, where he sold Qat, a mildly narcotic plant that many people recreationally chew in the region. He made a profit from what he sold. Ali Ismail thought that if he went to Yemen he would be able to find a better job and provide more for his family.

He found a migrant smuggler, who could take him all the way to Yemen for 15,000 ETH Birr (USD 750).

He was transported overland from Ethiopia to Djibouti. By crossing the Red Sea on a small boat with dozens of other migrants, Ali Ismail entered Yemen via Aden.

He continued his journey to Rada’a, where he worked on a Qat farm for 15 days. Ali Ismail decided to then go to Sa’adah Governorate in north-western Yemen because he had heard that it was famous for Qat farms. He was completely unaware that Sa’adah has been an area of active combat since the start of the conflict.

Ali Ismail worked on a farm there for two months. Under a tree, waiting for the heat from the sun to die down, a bullet hit him in chest. He still has no idea who shot him. One of his friends who also worked on the farm took him to a hospital in Sa’adah , the capital city of the Governorate, where he given emergency medical treatment.

Under the detrimental strain of the conflict, the hospital Ali Ismail was brought to lacked equipment, medical staff, electricity and other life-saving essentials. Bed-ridden and unable to walk, he could not receive all of the necessary medical assistance he needed.

With a help of a friend, Ali Ismail traveled to a hospital in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. He was turned away because he did not have any money to pay for the treatment. He had spent all his savings on treatment in the Sa’adah hospital and transportation to Sana’a.

Someone in the Ethiopian community in Sana’a told Ali Ismail’s friend to take him to IOM’s medical clinic in city. IOM’s assessed Ali Ismail’s medical condition, ensuring he was admitted to hospital. IOM covered the cost of his treatment. A week later, Ali Ismail was released and transferred to IOM’s temporary shelter, where he continues to receive care.

Ali Ismail has asked for help to get back to Ethiopia. Once his health is better and he is fit to travel, IOM will make sure that happens.

The migration trends between the Horn of Africa and Yemen are centuries old, and are facilitated by geographical proximity and similar culture and religion. While in previous decades, there was a large outflow of Yemenis to the Horn of Africa, these days thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians cross the Red and Arabian Sea, in search of opportunities in the Gulf countries like Yemen or Saudi Arabia.

Before Yemen’s conflict erupted in March 2015, migrants often found jobs in restaurants, construction, hotels, hospitals, car washing, and domestic worker. In general, prior to the conflict, the Yemeni community welcomed to the migrant population. Restaurants even offered free meals to them. The good will of Yemenis was to help migrants when possible.

The scenario has remarkably changed for Yemenis and migrants in the country. Fleeing death, leaving their houses and moving to safer areas, 3 million people are now displaced within the country.

Two and half years of conflict have also taken a toll on the country’s infrastructure. Public services hardly function. The Government does not have the resources to support them. The air and sea de facto embargo makes it difficult to import basic goods, such as food and fuel.

Yemenis, who were once helping migrants, are now struggling to deal with the effects of conflict.

And migrants are becoming caught up in a conflict more dangerous than they ever expected.


Migrants are #NotATarget. Go to and sign the petition.

This story was originally posted on To contact Olivia, please email