Yemen: The deadly migration route that the world is ignoring

Jamal and Ahmed are two Ethiopian migrants traveling across the border into Djibouti, bound for Yemen.

Story highlights

  • Many migrants in Yemen are abused and tortured, writes Mohammed Abdiker
  • He says they face similar abuse to migrants traveling through Libya

Mohammed Abdiker is director of operations and emergencies for the UN Migration Agency. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN)Last year, nearly 100,000 migrants entered Yemen, a country gripped by conflict and the world's worst humanitarian crisis. That's 2,000 migrants entering a warzone per week; nearly 300 a day.

The majority start out from Ethiopia, and some from Somalia, and usually head to the Gulf in search of work, with Saudi Arabia being the top destination. People embarking on this route are typically under 25, but many are children.
    Mohammed Abdiker, UN Migration Agency.
    The stories we hear from them are the same; they know someone who has gone before and "made it." Someone who has sent enough money home to build their parents a house, put their brother through school or regenerate their family farm affected by years of drought. Migrants often cite these examples as proof that once they reach their destination they will be able to pull themselves and their loved ones out of poverty.
      It is this mix of desperation and naivety that smugglers unscrupulously exploit.

      Abuse, torture and kidnapping

        It is almost impossible to travel this route (Ethiopia-Djibouti-Yemen-the Gulf) without enlisting a smuggler at some point and if a migrant tries to go it alone at all, they are putting themselves at greater risk because it's "bad for business" for the vast smuggling networks. Many migrants, including young people, suffer appalling treatment from cruel smugglers and other criminals, including physical and sexual abuse, torture, kidnapping for ransom (from families who can't afford to pay), arbitrary detention for long periods of time, forced labor, trafficking and even death.
        In Yemen, migrants also often get caught up in the conflict, sustaining injuries or even dying from shelling, and some are taken to detention centers.
        No migrant should be held in detention, especially children, and IOM, the UN Migration Agency, advocates for their closure and offers its support to the authorities to improve conditions. In Yemen, we currently only have access to two detention centers out of an unknown total.
        Ethiopian migrants sleep on the beach at Djibouti City.
        On a recent visit to Yemen, I went to a migrant holding facility in the capital, Sana'a, where I met teenagers in utter distress. I put a question to the room of over 200 migrants, mostly young men: if I could bring a bus or plane to take you home right now, would you want to go?
        They all raised their hands, showing how desperately they wanted out.

        How many are trafficked?

        These are worrying similarities to the horrendous abuse that migrants face on the Central Mediterranean Route from West Africa through Libya to Europe. But migrants in Yemen only attract a fraction of the world's attention and demands for protection and support. Not to mention the lack of funding from the international community. For example, did you know that that thousands of migrants were stranded in or near the frontlines of the recent military offensive on Yemen's busy port city of Hodeidah?
        But we also do not know the true size of the problem, because of the security situation in the country and the danger it would pose to our staff to expose them to these violent smuggling networks. We do not know how many migrants are in Yemen, how many stay there to work or make it to the Gulf. We do not know how many are held captive by smugglers or are in official detention centers. We do not know how many are being trafficked.
        However, during 2017 we have been able to track 87,000 migrants in the country through our Displacement Tracking teams, and provide humanitarian assistance to more than 33,000 migrants.
        Migrants at a holding facility in Sana'a, Yemen.

        A survivor's story

        One person who our team on the ground helped, was a 14-year-old boy named Mohammed. He wanted to travel from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia to find work and hopefully save some money. He left his home with some friends without telling his relatives. They walked several hundred miles, while hungry and thirsty.
        Risking drowning in the sea, they crossed from Djibouti to Yemen. When they got to Yemen, Mohammed says he and his friends were abducted by smugglers in an area where there is ongoing fighting. He says the smugglers abused him physically and only released him once they had extorted money from him and his friends through their families back home.
        Attempting to then travel through the country to the border, they were seriously injured by an explosion. An ambulance took Mohammed and five others to a hospital. According to Mohammed, two female migrants died and the other migrants from his group were never found. Mohammed was transferred to the prison in Hodeidah, which is where IOM met him and provided him with assistance.
        Following this near-death experience at such a young age, Mohammed asked us to help him return home to Ethiopia, which we did earlier this year.