Image: IOM/Majed Mohammed
New York: Amid intensifying conflict in Yemen, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) is helping nearly 5,000 Ethiopian migrants stranded in the country to return home, the UN agency reported on Tuesday.
Some 300 migrants are set to depart for Addis Ababa this week on two IOM-run Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) flights leaving out of the southern port city of Aden, where the internationally-recognized Government is headquartered.
The aim is to operate two flights weekly through the end of the year, and to expand to other places such as Ma’rib, where fighting persists between Government forces and the Ansar Allah movement, also known as the Houthis.
“Since the start of the pandemic, migrants in Yemen have been pushed even further into the shadows,” said John McCue, Deputy Chief of Mission with IOM Yemen.
The country has been divided between Government forces, backed by a Saudi-led military coalition, and the Houthis, who hold most of the north, since 2015.
A ‘crucial lifeline’
More than 670 migrants have voluntarily returned so far this year, but IOM will need $3 million from the international community, and continued support from the Yemeni and Ethiopian authorities, to facilitate the flights.
“We call on donors to make more significant contributions to this crucial lifeline which provides thousands of stranded migrants with their only chance to escape a dangerous situation and make their way home,” Mr. McCue said.
IOM estimates that some 32,000 migrants are stranded in dire conditions in Yemen due to COVID-19 movement restrictions, preventing them from journeying on to Saudi Arabia.
The restrictions have also had a knock-on effect on smuggling networks as this route is no longer as lucrative as in the past, meaning groups are adopting alternative ways to exploit migrants to make up for their financial losses.
Beaten, detained, exploited
Some migrants are forced to work on farms to pay off their debts, while others are exposed to gender-based violence and abduction for ransom. The majority lack access to water, food, sanitation and healthcare.
Many migrants have become increasingly desperate to return home. IOM reported that since May 2020, some 18,200 people have risked their lives taking the perilous sea route to Djibouti or Somalia. Dozens have drowned when overcrowded vessels capsized.
"I've been beaten, detained, and exploited in Yemen”, one 24-year-old Ethiopian woman told IOM. She finally travelled home last week.
“Most nights I went hungry. After everything that happened to me, I am happy to go back to my home and family.”
Of the migrants who have taken VHR flights this year, 20 were under the age of 18. Unaccompanied minors account for more than 10 per cent of new arrivals to Yemen. IOM said the so-called Eastern Corridor – comprising Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Yemen – has some of the highest proportions of children using an irregular migration route.
Besides arranging the flights to Ethiopia, IOM also offers other support to migrants before they leave Yemen, including counselling and helping them to secure travel documents. IOM also liaises with the authorities in both countries to ensure safe passage and transit.
When they return home, migrants are temporarily housed at the IOM transit centre in Ethiopia where they are provided with food, essential non-food items, counselling services, and a transport allowance to their final destination. The UN agency also arranges medical and psychological care, as well as family tracing and reunification for unaccompanied migrant children.
“Facilitating safe voluntary return of migrants from Yemen remains to be an extremely critical programme, and ought to be accompanied by lasting solutions to irregular migration,” said Malambo Moonga, Head of the Migration Management Unit for IOM Ethiopia.
“We continue to appeal for investments in sustainable reintegration of returnees and resilience-building in Ethiopian communities with high rates of irregular migration.”