Over 3,000 migrants, many of them children, have been stranded in Haradh, Yemen since last year, and UNICEF has been advocating for their rights.
By Sveinn H. Gudmarsson
HARADH, Yemen, 1 February 2011 – “Please form a queue and wait until it is your turn,” says the blue-capped official from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), who manages the registration of African migrants at the departure centre in Haradh, a dusty border town in north-western Yemen.
Approximately 30 men squeeze through the centre’s gate and line up in front of a large tent, where registration takes place. Some are excited about returning home, but most look tired and sad after weeks of travel marred by hardships and danger.
Among those waiting are two Ethiopian boys: Mohamed, 17, from Wara Babo, and Hassan, 16, from Kore.
Fed up with unemployment and bleak prospects, each of the boys decided to embark on a long and perilous journey to Saudi Arabia in hopes of a better life. After borrowing money from neighbours and friends, they both managed to secure a place on a small boat carrying over 70 other migrants from Djibouti to Yemen. They met on the boat and became friends.
“I was terrified during the ride. It was pitch-dark the whole time, and the sea was so rough that water kept flowing in,” says Mohamed. “There were people waiting for us when we finally came to shore. They went through our pockets and took whatever money we had left. I thought they were going to kill me.”
Stranded in a strange country with no money, the two boys travelled on foot almost 400 km to reach the Saudi border. “We knocked on houses and asked for food,” recall Hassan. “Most people were nice. If they had something to eat, they shared it with us.”
Hassan and Mohammed, two young migrants from Ethiopia, seek advice about repatriation from International Organization for Migration staff in Yemen.
Trapped in a foreign land
Mohamed and Hassan never made it to the bright lights of Saudi Arabia’s cities. Instead, they were caught at the border by the Saudi police and returned to Yemen after spending a few days in a prison cell. The gloomy streets of Haradh are currently their home. Sometimes they sleep in a local mosque; more often, on the side of the road.
“I feel cold during the night with no blanket and just the clothes I am wearing,” says Mohamed.
For years, Yemen has been a major transit route for migrants like Mohamed and Hassan, and refugees from the Horn of Africa, en route to Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf countries. In recent months, however, Saudi Arabia has sealed its border with Yemen, while simultaneously deporting irregular migrants.
In addition to the deportees, the stream of new arrivals from Africa is steady. As a result, over 3,000 African migrants have become stranded in Haradh over the past few weeks. Many of them are in poor health after their long and arduous journeys. Thirty have reportedly died since August.
‘The Gate of Lament’
Awal Idris, a 20-year-old Ethiopian also waiting for registration at the IOM departure centre, has painful memories of his journey to Yemen. Cramped in the hold of a small boat with 120 other migrants, he witnessed people around him dying from dehydration and exhaustion.
“We were forced to throw the dead bodies into the sea,” he explains in a shaky voice.
When the boat approached the Yemeni coast, one of Awal’s fellow travellers had to swim to the shore with a rope. The others then duly followed.
“We were forced to throw the dead bodies into the sea,” says Awal Idris, a young migrant from Ethiopia who is stranded in Haradh, Yemen.
Awal is lucky to be alive. Overcrowded and rickety, many boats never make it over the Strait of Bab Al-Mandab – aptly named “The Gate of Lament” – separating the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aden. In the first week of January, two boats carrying African migrants capsized off the Yemeni coast. At least 80 people drowned.
Since October, various humanitarian organizations, including UNICEF, have been working to help the stranded migrants in Haradh. Most of the migrants have been provided with shelter, food and medical assistance. Those who do not seek asylum through the UN refugee agency are voluntarily returned to their homes with IOM assistance. Around 1,500 have already been repatriated.
UNICEF has supplied the Haradh departure centre with safe drinking water; provided tents to the local child-protection centre, where women and children can be hosted; and, in close cooperation with Yemeni authorities, arranged for psycho-social support for the migrants.
Most important, UNICEF has advocated for the rights of the unaccompanied or separated minors among the migrant population. As a result, almost 160 of them have been provided with interim care and repatriated to their home countries, where they have been reunited with their families. Some 75 of these children had been kept in the prisons of Taiz and Hodeidah, their release granted only after UNICEF’s strong advocacy efforts.
“It was a real shock for us to find these children in prisons, and the Yemeni Government was not aware of their vulnerability either,” says UNICEF Yemen’s Ghada Kachachi. “Extensive efforts were made by UNICEF and its counterparts to ensure their immediate release and to provide them with care. At the same time, we coordinated their return home with the UNICEF offices in Ethiopia and Nigeria.”
For their part, Mohamed and Hassan are still waiting to go home, and they are hopeful that they will soon be reunited with their families. The future is unclear for both of them, however. Ideally, they would like to finish school and find steady jobs, though the economic situation Ethiopia casts doubt on those plans.
But it is clear that neither boy wants to repeat the painful experiences of the past few weeks. “It is better to stay at home in Ethiopia,” says Hassan, “than to starve in Yemen.”