Can legal changes stop trafficking in Yemen?

A Yemeni draft law envisaging strict penalties for those involved in trafficking migrants, including kidnapping them and demanding ransom, may finally bring an end to decades of exploitation. 

To give the process a push, the International Labour Organization (ILO) co-hosted a three-day workshop from 6-8 September with Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, bringing together government entities, international agencies, and non-governmental groups to develop Yemen’s anti-trafficking roadmap.

“Trafficking is a security problem - and a social problem, a human rights problem, a foreign relations problem,” said Fouad AlGhaffari, director-general of the office of the minister of human rights. “It’s about the rights of women, of children, of everybody.”  

As of July, 37,971 migrants and refugees had reportedly crossed the Red Sea to Yemen since the beginning of the year, according to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS), many of them Ethiopians trying to reach job opportunities in Saudi Arabia despite a recent toughening of border controls and immigration rules in that country. Thousands of Somalis seeking protection also continue to cross every year, with 230,878 currently in Yemen, according to the UN Refugee Agency.

Migrants usually leave their home countries of their own free will, but are often sold to armed gangs by their smugglers upon arrival in Yemen. The traffickers transfer the migrants to holding camps, where they are held in horrific conditions, and women and girls are frequently subjected to sexual abuse. Both men and women report being brutally tortured and beaten until relatives pay a ransom for their release.

From the beginning of 2013, cases of migrants being held until they pay up rose drastically, according to RMMS. After being freed, migrants often work difficult, low-paying jobs or try to find their way to another country. 

With support from ILO, Yemen’s Ministry of Human Rights (MHR) has joined forces with the ministries of defence, justice, interior, and planning, among others, to establish a National Dialogue Committee on Combating Trafficking. The committee will work to see the new anti-trafficking bill become law, conduct research on the extent of trafficking in Yemen, and roll out a comprehensive national strategy by 2015. 

“To have Yemen, which sees in its country serious violation of human rights, take this issue on, already speaks for itself as something we can commend,” said Helene Harroff-Tavel from the ILO’s regional office in the Arab states in Beirut. 

She added, however, that progress would not be easy. “The legislative challenge is a big one because there are so many competing priorities [for the government],” said Harroff-Tavel. 

Alongside the proposed trafficking law, the government is also seeking to change legislation to set a minimum age of 18 for marriage in order to end the practice of Yemeni girls being married and exploited, particularly by visitors from richer Gulf States. Yemen is one of the few countries without a legal minimum age for marriage. The draft law on child marriage has encountered political opposition in Yemen’s Council of Ministers; and campaigners say this will only complicate efforts to stem sexual exploitation of minors as part of a trafficking law.  

But human rights activists warn that even if the challenges of getting the law passed are overcome, the country’s political divisions and insecurity could limit its impact. 

Hurdles ahead

In May, Human Rights Watch's (HRW) Yemen office released a report alleging the complicity of government officials in trafficking operations.

The report documented cases of payoffs at checkpoints and bribes to criminal investigation departments and security forces to ensure they turned a blind eye to traffickers, and even the involvement of government officials in holding migrants in captivity before turning them over to traffickers for money. According to the report, not a single trafficker has been successfully prosecuted. “This industry cannot exist without government complicity on multiple levels,” HRW’s Yemen researcher, Belkis Wille, told IRIN. “So when you’re having a discussion about this, you have to be discussing corruption among officials.”

According to Wille, none of the government deliberations thus far have included an admission of complicity in the trafficking trade, although such discussions would be “essential to the strategy to combat [trafficking]”.

Further challenges lie in accessing areas outside the government’s control. After arriving on the Yemeni coastline, victims are often transported in buses through northern portions of Yemen that fall under the control of tribal groups.

“The traffickers in the north are tribal sheikhs - they are incredibly powerful, well-connected families… with their own political clout,” Wille said. The transitional central government has struggled to impose its will on the country, particularly in the north and east.

Despite these obstacles, those involved in drafting the law remain optimistic. “The government has adopted this totally,” said AlGhaffari. “Yemen faces a lot of challenges, but I think there’s no excuse for not following up on this.” Workshop participants were optimistic that the new bill could become law before the end of the year.


The first step - submitting a bill on combating human trafficking to the Yemeni parliament - has been completed.

Although it still requires further review, the draft law is a vast improvement on Yemen’s current infrastructure for dealing with trafficking, says ILO. Drawing on international protocols and ILO conventions, the draft law addresses multiple kinds of trafficking, including for purposes of sexual and labour exploitation, with prisons sentences of 5-15 years and heavy fines for those found guilty.

The participants in Beirut agreed to bring the draft law into line with ILO Convention 29 on Forced Labour as well as the International Protocol on Trafficking.

According to Torsten Schackel, ILO’s senior international labour standards specialist, the draft law importantly includes provisions that put an end to the prosecution of victims. “The victims are victimized twice - first with being trafficked, then being faced with sanctions for being illegally in the country,” said Shackel. To rectify this, the new law includes articles on identifying victims and dealing with them through the lens of protection, rather than prosecution.