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Amid conflict and coronavirus, Yemen has become one of the world's busiest migration routes Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

Amid conflict and coronavirus, Yemen has become one of the world's busiest migration routes

Many migrants are unaware of Yemen's five-year war [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 June, 2020

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Yemen's 'hidden' migrant population has become even more vulnerable as the coronavirus crisis hits the war-torn nation.
The journey to Yemen across the Red Sea from the Horn of Africa has become the world's busiest maritime migration route, the UN's migration agency has said, with more than 100,000 migrants last year risking their lives to reach the oil-rich Gulf states.

Migrants who crossed over to Yemen from the African continent now face a triple threat of conflict, humanitarian catastrophe and the novel coronavirus, The Guardian reported.

Many of the mostly Ethiopian and Somalian migrants in Yemen did not know about the country's conflict before making their way across the Red Sea. Most are also unaware of the risk of torture and rape they face at the hands of traffickers.

Yemen has been caught in a perpetual war since the Iran-backed Houthi rebels seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.

In 2015, a US-backed, Saudi-led coalition began a destructive air campaign to dislodge the Houthis while imposing a land, sea and air embargo on Yemen.

The conflict has been devestating for what was already the Arab world's poorest country, creating what the United Nations has called the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe.

More than 100,000 people have been killed and four million displaced due to the conflict, while thousands more have died from severe malnutrition and cholera epidemics. 

"We didn't know about the fighting in Yemen before we came on the boat last night," Ethiopian Abdul Saleh Tayeb told The Guardian last year. "But we are looking for money. We have to go to Saudi Arabia."

To reach Saudi Arabia's southern limits, migrants like Tayeb must travel around 1,000 miles (1,400km) through disputed territories involving mountainous terrain and scorching desert.

As the European Union has cracked down on Mediterranean migration routes to Europe from Turkey and Libya over the past few years, the Red Sea route has become the most heavily trafficked maritime migration route in the world, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Around 138,000 people made the journey from the Horn of Africa last year, hoping to make their way across Yemen to one of the Gulf's oil-rich states where migrant workers form the bulk of the workforce.

Coronavirus ravages Yemen


Aid agencies are now worried that the country's little-reported migrant population will be even more vulnerable amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The UN fears the Covid-19 disease has spread unchecked throughout the war-torn nation, where authorities have been accused of covering up the true toll of deaths and infections amid reports of Yemenis dying with coronavirus-like symptoms.

The conflict has shut down or destroyed half of Yemen's health facilities, leaving medics ill-equipped to combat the virus. 

"As well as Yemenis displaced by the conflict, we are also trying to help migrants who have no money, no support networks, nothing when they get here," Jean Nicholas Beuze, the UN refugee agency's representative to Yemen, told The Guardian.

"Everyday this is pushing more people into deep poverty. We are worried about an increase in things like survival sex and marrying off young children."

The World Health Organisation predicts that at least 42,000 will die from the Covid-19 disease.

Aid cuts pose yet another threat

The crisis comes as the UN is forced to dramatically cut aid to Yemen.

The UN's massive aid program, totaling $8.35 billion since 2015, is vital to keeping many Yemenis alive. Ten million people are on the brink of famine and 80 percent of the 30 million population are in need of aid, according to the UN.
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Some 75 percent of UN programmes in Yemen have had to shut their doors or reduced operations. The global body's World Food Programme had to cut rations in half and UN-funded health services have been reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.

The UN refugee agency will also have to stop cash assistance and shelter programmes for more than 50,000 displaced families by August. 

The dwindling funds are the result of several factors, but among the top reasons is obstruction by the Houthi rebels.

The US, one of the largest donors, decreased aid to Yemen earlier this year, citing interference by the Houthis.

Agencies contributed to this report

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