The vast inequalities of wealth on either side of the invisible boundary between the Arab world’s richest and poorest countries - Yemen and Saudi Arabia - have come to define the small town of Haradh in northwestern Yemen, where aid agencies are scrambling to help an increasing number of stranded and ill-treated African migrants.
In addition to drugs and arms smuggling, Haradh is becoming increasingly infamous for its role in the trafficking of African migrants in search of work in Saudi Arabia. Here, citizens from the Horn of Africa are victimized by brutal smugglers of many nationalities, who are allegedly aided by Yemeni and Saudi border police.
“They took my wife and cousin,” said Mohammed Abdullah quietly in Arabic, before our Amharic-to-English translator came in. A 23-year-old Ethiopian, Mohammed has been moving between Yemen and Saudi Arabia for six years, but only recently fell prey to what some aid workers say is Saudi Arabia’s unofficial policy of dumping African migrants across the border, where they are left at the mercy of smugglers.
Mohammed made it to Saudi Arabia three years ago and worked as a jockey, before eventually being deported. Last week he tried to cross again, this time with his 20-year-old wife and 28-year-old female cousin. They were captured by Saudi authorities, who filled two buses with Africans to be deported. When they got to the border, however, the Saudi soldiers phoned smugglers on the Yemeni side.
“The smugglers told the soldiers to send the women over first,” said Mohammed. “The women were taken off the buses and walked across the border, where they waited with Yemeni soldiers until the smugglers came and took them. Then we were allowed to cross. One Yemeni soldier tried to take my mobile phone, and he beat me when I refused,” he said, as he revealed a deep gash on his neck. After Mohammed called his wife, a smuggler took the phone from her and demanded 50,000 Yemeni riyals (US$235) for the release of each of his family members.
Claims of cooperation between smugglers and border police are common. After spending 10 days in Saudi jails prior to her deportation, Kimya, an Ethiopian asylum-seeker, said the Saudi police took her to the border. “They said: ‘This is Yemen.’ They shot in the air three times and told us to walk. When we crossed the Yemeni border we were caught by Yemeni soldiers. They called the smugglers and the smugglers came and took us.”
Kimya said the women held in smuggler houses are abused. “The women are beaten and forced to call their families in Ethiopia to transfer money. They threaten any woman they want with a gun and rape her.”
Tales such as these are increasing as a result of a new reality in Haradh in recent months. Since early September, Saudi Arabia has reportedly begun an aggressive policy of deporting African migrants to Yemen.
Over 2,800 African migrants are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Haradh.
There is a robust humanitarian presence here, but the UN and its partner agencies are in Haradh to deal with internally displaced Yemenis fleeing conflict in Saada between Houthi tribesmen and the Yemeni government. About 17,000 internally displaced families are in and around Haradh, surviving primarily on rations provided by the World Food Programme. Already under-funded and stretched by this humanitarian crisis, itself marked by widespread malnutrition, humanitarian actors are now trying to deal with this new situation, too.
MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has opened a hospital - originally intended for internally displaced persons (IDPs) - to the migrants, and UNHCR has devoted staff to dealing with the emerging crisis.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) and UNHCR have allocated funds and manpower to facilitating voluntary repatriation for the Ethiopians in Haradh. In mid-November 613 Ethiopians were repatriated, and a further 484 are expected to be returned to Ethiopia by early December, according to Bill Lorenz, an IOM senior operations officer. IOM is seeking one million dollars to help finance further repatriation.
“This is part of a holistic approach, including information campaigns in Somalia and Ethiopia, while also working with authorities here [in Yemen] for better treatment of migrants,” said Lorenz, referring to the efforts of the Mixed Migration Task Force, which is composed of a variety of NGOs and inter-governmental organizations.
Medina Mohammed, 25, is one Ethiopian woman who wishes she had known of the hardships involved before she undertook her journey. She walked for nearly two weeks to get to the Djibouti coast, where she paid 6,000 Ethiopian birr ($365) to smugglers to take her on the five-hour journey to Yemen.
|The women are beaten and forced to call their families in Ethiopia to transfer money. They threaten any woman they want with a gun and rape her|
“As soon as we were dropped on the coastline, there were smugglers who took us and said we should pay more money. When we told them we didn’t have any, they started beating us. They searched us for money and then released us, and we had to make our way on foot again.” It took another three weeks before she made it to Sanaa. When asked how she survived this long without money, she replied: “Arabs are good people. When we said we were hungry they gave us food and water.”
After making her way to Haradh, she failed to get into Saudi Arabia. “We could not get in because the soldiers were shooting at us.” Referring to her ordeal since leaving Ethiopia, she said: “We didn’t know it would be so hard and dangerous… We wish we were back in Ethiopia.”
Haradh’s police chief
In Haradh many migrants live in the street, and efforts to protect them from smugglers are complicated by corruption.
The local police chief in Haradh, Abdul-Hafeez al-Khateeb, said he was aware of the smuggler networks, saying the smugglers in Haradh are primarily Yemeni, but many also come from the Horn of Africa, especially Ethiopia and Somalia.
“Arrangements are sometimes made between smugglers and Yemeni and Saudi border guards,” he said. “I have heard that [migrants] are forced to call their families and beg for money. Women are sometimes raped… People will not report this to me because the whole operation is illegal. When I am informed, I take action.”
A UNHCR staffer in Haradh said he had accompanied al-Khateeb on a raid of a smuggler house, in which 13 women were freed. Tragically, some of the women returned to the smugglers shortly afterwards, still hoping to make the journey into Saudi Arabia. Informed that Mohammed Abdullah’s wife and cousin were being held against their will by smugglers, the police chief said he would free them if the police are able to locate the pair. IRIN has since learnt that they have been rescued by al-Khateeb.
Although the police chief has helped free migrants, humanitarian workers in Haradh said the smugglers walk around freely in Haradh, and their houses, notorious for the abuse which takes place inside, are well known to all.
In the larger picture, it is clear that Saudi Arabia’s policy of leaving African migrants at the border of their poorer neighbour is exacerbating conditions in Haradh. Acting head of IOM Fawzi Zioud said he had spoken recently with the Saudi ambassador to Yemen and there are ongoing discussions about how best to deal with the situation, although no solutions have yet been reached.
For many migrants, at least, the next step is clear. “How can we go to Saudi Arabia now? Everything is closed,” said Kahsa, a 22-year-old Ethiopian. “We want to go back home.”