Key mixed migration characteristics
- Yemen is a major country of destination and transit for people in mixed migration flows from the Horn of Africa region. Yemen is also a country of origin for Yemenis fleeing to the Horn of Africa (since the start of conflict in March 2015) or migrating to the Gulf states for economic opportunities.
- Mixed migration movements into Yemen predominantly include refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked persons, and irregular and economic migrants from neighbouring countries particularly from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Middle East countries of Syria and Iraq.
- According to UNHCR, the refugee and asylum seeker population in Yemen was 279,221 as of 28 February 2017. Majority of refugees and asylum seekers come from Somalia and are granted prima facie refugee status by Yemeni government.
- The outbreak of conflict in the country in March 2015 has resulted in large-scale displacement of people both within and from the country. As of 31 December 2016, more than 183,483 people had fled Yemen and sought refuge in neighbouring countries in the Horn of Africa and Gulf states.
- Available figures from the Yemen Task Force on Population Movement (TFPM) indicate that approximately 7.3% of the Yemeni population remained displaced as of February 2017. An estimated 2 million individuals were displaced across 21 governorates in Yemen, the majority, 57%, displaced in just five governorates.
- Yemen is also a major transit hub for migrants from the Horn of Africa, in particular Ethiopians and to a lesser extent Somali nationals, heading to the Gulf states in search of better economic opportunities.
- According to U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report 2016, Yemen is a country of origin and, to a lesser extent, transit and destination, for men, women and children subjected to forced labour, and women and children subjected to sex trafficking.
As a mixed migration origin country
Yemen is a country of origin for people in mixed migration flows to the Horn of Africa, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. Yemeni nationals migrate to the Gulf states and particularly to Saudi Arabia in search of better economic opportunities and safety. Available data indicates there were approximately 1.5 million Yemeni nationals (both regular and irregular) in Saudi Arabia in 2013, nearly twice the total number in 2007. (1). In early 2013, the Saudi government launched an operation targeting undocumented or irregular migrants in the country in which an estimated 655,399 Yemeni nationals were returned to their country between June 2013 and December 2014. (2). The US Department of State’s 2015 Trafficking in Persons report also notes that a total of 344,348 Yemeni migrant workers were deported from Saudi Arabia during 2014 with majority of the deportees returning to the west coast of Yemen. (3). According to IOM, the massive returns of Yemeni nationals to their country was easier to effect due to the immediate land proximity of Yemen with Saudi Arabia. In addition, the Saudi government installed a high-tech fence along its border with Yemen to stem the flow of irregular migrants. However, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, trafficking and smuggling of migrants from Yemen to Saudi Arabia continued along the border with apparent complicity of Saudi border guards. (4). According to media reports, the government of Saudi Arabia is reviewing a proposal submitted by the country’s Shoura (Consultative) Council to deport an estimated five million undocumented or irregular migrants as part of a broader economic and social recovery program aimed at creating jobs and reducing unemployment in the country. (5). In relation to this development, the Saudi government launched a campaign dubbed ‘A Nation Without Violations’ beginning 29 March 2017, which grants undocumented or irregular migrants a 90-day grace period to correct their legal status. (6). A statement from the government indicated that undocumented migrants taking advantage of this grace period to leave the country would be exempt from any fines or penalties associated with violating the Saudi residency, labour and border security regulations. In addition, those who leave the country voluntarily during the grace period would be eligible to re-enter the country through legal procedures.
The majority of Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers in the Horn of Africa are hosted in Djibouti where they do not require a visa to enter and are allowed to stay for 30 days, after which they should renew their visa, apply for refugee status or leave the country. According to RMMS, most Yemeni refugees and asylum seekers move into Djibouti due to the close historical ties between the two countries, an existing Yemeni diaspora community in Djibouti and the close land proximity between the two countries. (8).
The displacement of Yemenis and other nationalities into neighbouring countries and in particular the Horn of Africa is expected to continue as conflict rages on despite international efforts to bring about a comprehensive negotiated political settlement. Towards the end of March 2017, the UN expressed concern over looming famine in Yemen as an estimated seven million Yemenis faced starvation and over two-thirds of the population needed humanitarian or protection support.(9). According to UN, more than 50,000 civilians have been killed, injured or maimed since conflict began in March 2015 while approximately 2 million people have been displaced across Yemen.
There is scant information about onward movement of Yemeni migrants, asylum seekers and refugee, for example towards Europe on the Central Mediterranean route, compared to other nationalities from the region such as Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians. Since the conflict in Yemen erupted in March 2015, less than 100 Yemeni arrivals in Europe had been recorded in May 2016 as majority of Yemenis fled and stayed in neighbouring countries including the Horn of Africa. (10).
Yemen is also a country of origin for men, women and children subjected to forced labour, and children and women subjected to sex trafficking. (11). Yemen’s political instability, weakening rule of law and deepening poverty has facilitated a conducive environment for increased trafficking activities. US Department of State’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons report notes that some Yemeni children, mostly boys, who migrate to Saudi Arabia are subjected to forced domestic servitude while others are forced into drugs smuggling or prostitution by traffickers, security officials or their employers upon arrival into Saudi Arabia.
As a mixed migration destination country
Yemen is among the poorest countries with a low human development index ranking of 160 out of 188 countries, high youth unemployment and almost half of its population of 26.8 million lived below the poverty line in 2014 .(12). Nevertheless, despite these poor social and economic condition in the country and the on-going conflict that has displaced thousands of people both within and out of the country, Yemen remains an important destination country for migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa and, to a lesser extent, the Middle East (Syria, Iraq). The majority of registered refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen are of Somali origin and are granted prima facie refugee status by the Yemeni government. Other registered refugees and asylum seekers come from Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria and other nationalities (see figures in the section on refugees, asylum seekers and IDPs below).
Refugees arriving on Yemen's shores make their way to UNHCR reception center. Photo credit: E. Hockstein/DRC
Migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa (primarily of Ethiopian and Somali origin) have traditionally travelled from the coastal towns of Obock in Djibouti and Bossaso in Puntland, Somalia across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden/Arabian Sea to Yemen. Since 2014, there has been a gradual shift in the migration patterns of migrants leaving the Horn of Africa to Yemen with most departures, over 80%, being recorded on the Arabian Sea from Bosasso in Puntland, while in the years before a large majority left from Djibouti, using the Red Sea route .(13). This has mainly been attributed to protection risks upon arrival in Yemen on the Red Sea coast including abduction and abuse and increased chances of detention by Yemeni military patrolling the coastal areas.
UNCHR data reveals that the numbers of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers arriving in Yemen have been steadily increasing over the last ten years with 25,898 arrivals recorded in 2006, which doubled in 2008 with 50,091 persons reported to have arrived and rose further to 91,592 and 92,446 in 2014 and 2015 respectively. Although Yemen’s mixed migratory patterns fluctuate and are driven by a wide range of factors often linked to crises in the countries of origin, sea conditions, protection risks and the application of stringent border controls in Yemen and Gulf states, the flow of migrants and refugees travelling from the Horn of Africa to Yemen continued unabated with a record number of 117,107 migrants and asylum seekers arriving from the Horn of Africa in 2016. This number surpasses the previous record of 2012, when a total of 107, 532 migrants were estimated to have arrived in Yemen.
Before 2008, Somalia was the country of origin of most refugees/asylum seekers arriving in Yemen, however since 2008 Ethiopian migrants constitute the largest proportion of arrivals into Yemen from the Horn of Africa accounting for nearly 90% of arrivals in 2015 and approximately 83% in 2016. Monitoring missions established in 2006 by UNHCR and partners along the coastal areas of the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden and Arabian Sea have recorded more than 590,000 Ethiopian migrants crossing into Yemen between 2006 and February 2017. The proportion of Somali arrivals into Yemen was 17% in 2013, 21% in 2014, 11% in 2015 and 17% 2016. While Somalis tend to stay in Yemen, almost all Ethiopians consider Yemen a transit country on their way to Saudi Arabia, or other Gulf States (see below). According to RMMS Monthly Summary of February 2017, Ethiopian migrants reported paying between USD 305 – 872 for the journey to Obock, including for some, the cost of the sea crossing to Yemen. The average cost paid by Somalis was approximately USD 40 – 150, including for some, the cost of the boat trip to Yemen. (14).
Most Ethiopians do not register with UNHCR or government authorities in Yemen as they do not easily gain refugee status and aim to transit through Yemen into Saudi Arabia in search of better economic opportunities, either with smugglers or independently. There are thousands of Ethiopians also working informally inside Yemen – many in rural areas working as labourers (mainly on khat plantations) and herders. Some can also be found in specific areas of large cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Ta’iz.
Yemen is also a destination country for women and children, primarily from the Horn of Africa, for sex trafficking and forced labour. (TiP Report 2016). Migrant women and children from the Horn of Africa, in particular Somalis and Ethiopians, travel to Yemen in the hope of finding employment in the country or further in the Gulf states. However they are subjected to forced labour and sex trafficking for instance in Aden, Taiz and Lahj governorates of Yemen. The State Department report also notes that majority of child sex tourists in Yemen come from Saudi Arabia.
As a mixed migration transit country
Migrants that use Yemen as a transit point often use smugglers upon arrival to facilitate their movement towards the northern border region with Saudi Arabia. Ethiopian migrants are sometimes collected by vehicle upon arrival in Yemen and driven to the border areas by smugglers where they attempt to cross into Saudi Arabia. Others unable to afford smugglers attempt to walk from the coast to major cities or to the Saudi border in northern Yemen. However, many are unable to reach Saudi Arabia because of the Saudi government’s crackdown on irregular migration and consequently are stranded in Yemen. Some migrants seek work on khat plantations or casual jobs in major cities in order to raise money to pay for the remainder of their journey. Within Yemen, there are smuggling routes from Aden and Sana’a towards Saudi Arabia operated by different networks of Somali, Ethiopia or Yemeni smugglers. Smugglers may sometimes ferry migrants all the way to a destination in Saudi Arabia or leave them at the border. A study by RMMS in 2013 indicates that smugglers charge between USD 100-300 from Sana’a to the northern border or all the way to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia. (16). In March 2016, IOM resumed its humanitarian repatriation of stranded Ethiopian migrants which had evacuated more than 4,200 migrants from Yemen by the time the operation was suspended in mid-September 2015 due to lack of funding. (17). In 2016, IOM provided humanitarian evacuations to more than 3,000 Ethiopian migrants by boat from Al Hudaydah, Yemen to Djibouti, and over 500 migrants by air. (18).
Refugees, Asylum-seekers and IDPs in Yemen
The total refugee and asylum seeker population in Yemen as of 28th February 2017, was 279,221. According to UNHCR most refugees and asylum seekers live in urban centres such as Sana’a and Aden, while some (predominantly Somali) live in Kharaz refugee camp in Lahj governorate, 150km west of Aden.
The Yemeni government grants refugees access into public health services, the judiciary system, and access to education including vocational and technical skills training. According to UNHCR, many of these services and livelihoods have been reduced due to on-going conflict. The security situation in Yemen also has compelled a number of urban refugees to relocate to rural areas for safety reasons.
The total refugee and asylum seeker population in Yemen, February 2017
Protection issues and vulnerable groups
Once kidnapped, migrants are transported and held hostage in isolated camps or rural areas where they are severely tortured and sometimes killed. Migrants are released upon payment of ransom ranging between USD 1,500 and USD 2,000 usually paid by relatives and families back home or in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. (26). Women, especially young females, are at risk of rape and sexual violence during sea crossings and there have been reports of women being abducted and sold from one criminal gang to the next along the journeys from Yemen to Saudi Arabia.
Incidents of physical abuse reported along key migratory routes into Yemen
The red dots on the map indicate incidents of kidnapping reported by migrants along key migratory routes into Yemen. The larger the dot the higher the number of incidents (Source: http://4mi.regionalmms.org/)
Yemeni security forces and officials have also been reported to collude with human traffickers and smugglers. A 2014 report by Human Rights Watch notes that Yemeni security and border guards took bribes to turn a blind eye to human smuggling and trafficking operations and sometimes detained and robbed migrants before handing them over to traffickers. (27).
Source: Human Rights Watch 2014
In mid-March 2017, about 42 Somali refugees carrying official UNHCR documents lost their lives after a military vessel and later a helicopter gunship opened fire on a boat carrying between 140 and 160 migrants. (29). According to a survivor, the boat departed from Ras Arra, along the southern coastline in Yemen’s Hodeida province, and was 30 miles off the coast near the Bab al-Mandab strait en route to Sudan. About 75 men and 15 women are reported to have survived the attack and were taken to detention centres in Hodeida. It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. Humanitarian agencies condemned the attack and the Somali government called on the Saudi-led coalition to investigate the raid. (30).
Majority of the 2 million IDPs in Yemen live in overcrowded rented accommodation, tents and other forms of makeshift shelter and are vulnerable to a wide range of protection risks and needs including limited access to basic social amenities, lack of safety and security, harassment, lack of livelihood options, family separation, gender-based violence, loss of documentation and food insecurity. (31). With few prospects for return in sight, IDMC warns that displacement in Yemen may become protracted which may further compromise IDPs resilience to future shocks.
Detention of migrants
Migrants are usually detained in immigration or police detention centers in Taiz, Aden or Sana’a, sometimes for longer periods, as they await court trials. There are reports that protection teams are not always granted access to the detention centers to determine or identify potential refugees and asylum seekers, whereas the government has sometimes deported by force detained migrants without offering them a chance to seek asylum. (34).
Key concerns have also emerged regarding immigration detention in Yemen including regarding the poor conditions in detention centers, the detention of vulnerable groups such as children (detained with adults), asylum seekers and refugees, detention of male Somalis and Eritreans assumed to have terror links, and failure by authorities to follow due process while detaining migrants and asylum seekers. Detained migrants and asylum seekers are also not accorded information pertaining to charges against them or possibility of legal redress. Additionally, there is limited access to the detention centers especially those run by coastguard or political security forces. (35). In 2014, it was estimated that over 2,000 migrants were detained in immigration centers in Sana’a, out of which 99% Ethiopian nationals including women and children. Media reports also alleged that Eritrean migrants regularly ended up in detention centers.
Yemen has ratified the following international legislation relevant to mixed migration and protection of human rights of migrants and refugees.
- 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees & its 1967 Protocol
- United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Yemen is a signatory but has yet to ratify the Palermo Protocols)
- International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women
- Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
- Convention on the Rights of the Child
- Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict
- Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography
- Yemen Penal Code Article 248 (Trafficking and Smuggling)
- Child Rights Act Article 161 (Child prostitution)
- Draft anti-trafficking legislation (status unknown)
(1) (RMMS 2014) The Letter of the Law: Regular and irregular migration in Saudi Arabia in a context of rapid change
(2) (IOM 2014) Yemeni migrants returned from Saudi Arabia: December 2014 update
(3) US Department of State (2015). Trafficking in Persons Report: 2015
(4) (Human Rights Watch 2014) Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of migrants by human traffickers in a climate of impunity
(5) Sputnik News (2017). Illegal aliens in Riyadh: Saudi Arabia mulls deporting 5 million immigrants. Available at: https://sputniknews.com/middleeast/201703121051505952-saudi-migrants-deportation/
(6) Arab News (2017). 90-day amnesty period allows illegal workers to return to Saudi Arabia. Available at: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1071511/saudi-arabia
(7) (UNHCR 2016) Yemen Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan. Available at http://data.unhcr.org/yemen/regional.php
(8) (RMMS 2016) RMMS Briefing Paper 1: Pushed and Pulled in Two Directions: An analysis of the bi-directional refugee and migrant flow between the Horn of Africa and Yemen
(9) ReliefWeb (2017). Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Stephen O'Brien - Statement on Yemen. Available at: http://reliefweb.int/report/yemen/under-secretary-general-humanitarian-affairs-and-emergency-relief-coordinator-15
(10) (RMMS 2016) RMMS Briefing Paper 1: Pushed and Pulled in Two Directions: An analysis of the bi-directional refugee and migrant flow between the Horn of Africa and Yemen
(11) US Department of State (2016). Trafficking in Persons Report: 2016
(12) UNDP (2015). Human Development Report 2015
(13) (RMMS 2016) Shifting Tides: The changing nature of mixed migration crossings to Yemen
(14) RMMS (2017). Mixed Migration in Horn of Africa and Yemen Monthly Summary: February 2017
(15) (RMMS 2013) Migrant Smuggling in the Horn of Africa and Yemen: The political economy and protection risks
(17) (IOM 2016) IOM evacuates Ethiopian migrants from war-torn Yemen. Available at https://www.iom.int/news/iom-evacuates-ethiopian-migrants-war-torn-yemen Accessed (22 May 2016)
(18) MICIC (2017). IOM Djibouti - Assisting migrants evacuated from the Yemen crisis. Available at: https://micicinitiative.iom.int/blog/iom-djibouti-assisting-migrants-evacuated-yemen-crisis
(19) TFPM (2017). Yemen Task Force on Population Movement, 13th Report, March 2017.
(20) Human Rights Watch (2015). Yemen: Coalition Blocking Desperately Needed Fuel. Accessed (24 May 2016).
(21) (IDMC 2016) Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016
(22) (Protection Cluster Yemen 2016) Task Force on Population Movement 8th Report: April 2016
(23) TFPM (2017). Yemen Task Force on Population Movement, 13th Report, March 2017.
(24) (Human Rights Watch 2014) Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of migrants by human traffickers in a climate of impunity
(25) (RMMS 2014) Abused and Abducted: The plight of female migrants from the Horn of Africa in Yemen
(26) (RMMS 2014) The Letter of the Law: Regular and irregular migration in Saudi Arabia in a context of rapid change
(27) (Human Rights Watch 2014) Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of migrants by human traffickers in a climate of impunity
(28) (UNHCR (2017) New Arrivals in Yemen Comparisons 2012-2016
(29) Reuters (2017). Air strike kills 42 refugees off Yemen, Somalia demands investigation. Available at:
(30) UNHCR (2017). UNHCR appalled at attack on refugee boat off Yemen: Statement by UNHCR spokesman William Spindler. Available at: http://www.unhcr.org/news/press/2017/3/58cc01754/unhcr-appalled-attack-refugee-boat-yemen.html
(31) (IDMC 2016) Global Report on Internal Displacement 2016
(32) (RMMS 2015) Behind bars: The detention of migrants in and from the East and Horn of Africa
(33) (UNHCR 2016) Yemen Factsheet February 2016
(34) (RMMS 2015) Behind bars: The detention of migrants in and from the East and Horn of Africa