Located at the Southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen has been suffering from a deadly civil war that escalated into a regional proxy war between the Saudi led coalition and Iran, a situation that has been coined the world’s worst humanitarian crisis by the United Nations. Amidst restrictions on travelling by humanitarian professionals caused by the Covid 19 pandemic, the locust invasion, the flash floods of 2019 and 2020 and a major cholera outbreak, an increasing part of the population is facing the risk of acute malnutrition. The dire situation on the other side of the Bab el Mandeb strait, forces Yemenis to migrate to the Horn of Africa as well as Yemen to host Somali and Eritrean refugees stuck in transit to other Arab countries. If many Yemenis fled to Saudi Arabia, few made it to Europe, possibly explaining the lack of media coverage of the humanitarian crisis. A staggering 3.65 million Yemenis have been displaced and face increased threats of violence and human trafficking. The existence of two parallel administrations at war against each other makes it impossible to centralise humanitarian efforts as well as the struggle against human trafficking and forced labour, which primarily affects out of school children and women. Although Yemen ratified both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol, in 1980, the civil war resulted in the enforcement practice of two parallel asylum systems that bear pre-conflict limitations particularly by the lack of national refugee-specific legislation and the absence of a refugee status determination procedure. In terms of coordination mechanisms for the humanitarian and protection response by national and international partners as well as relevant authorities, UNHCR leads the Protection, Shelter/Non-Food Items, Camp Coordination and Camp Management clusters for IDPs, and co-leads with IOM the Refugee and Migrants Multi-Sector for refugees and asylum-seekers. Several NGOs and international humanitarian national agencies are active in Yemen, and coordinated by the OCHA managed Yemen Humanitarian Fund. Amongst them are to be found CAFOD, who works in Yemen via a local partner, and the Catholic Relief Service (CRS) who partnered with Islamic Relief. Yemen often is the focus of the Holy Father’s prayers and calls for peace.
Yemen, officially the Republic of Yemen, is located at the South-West of the Arabian Peninsula, bordering the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Red Sea, between Oman and Saudi Arabia. The country is the result of the reunification of North-Yemen and South-Yemen in 1990, marking the end of the Cold War in the Arab World. The vast majority of the 29,884,405 population is found in the Asir Mountains (part of the larger Sarawat Mountain system), located in the far western region of the country. All are Muslims. An estimated 65% are Sunni belonging to the Shafi’i school of interpretation, and 35% are Shia, belonging to the Zaydi school of interpretation and mostly Arab, with occurrences of Afro-Arab communities. Yemen was recently ranked amongst the most religious countries in the world with a 99% adherence to religion. Civil war has raged in the country since 2014 with no end in sight. The two sides are the National Salvation Government of the Republic of Yemen (NSG), which undertakes de facto state functions and responsibilities in Northern Yemen, also called the Houthi armed movement or “Ansar Allah”, against the internationally recognised government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. Other parties in the conflict include the Southern Transitional Council which in practice is hostile to both factions. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) have also carried out attacks, with AQAP controlling a comparatively smaller territory. The conflict internationalised with the official support of Iran for Houthis and the ongoing intervention of the Saudi-led Arab coalition of 9 countries in favor of President Hadi since 2015, turned the civil war into a regional proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The ongoing fighting is characterised by rapidly shifting frontlines, blurring territorial divisions and control, generally resulting in widespread displacement, psychosocial trauma, economic deprivation and a number of other deleterious consequences. The tragedy deepens as funding for humanitarian efforts falls short, as COVID-19 is rapidly spreading, exacerbating economic problems. Heavy rains and flash floods hit southern and eastern governorates, and migrant arrivals plummeted while anti-migrant abuse spiked leaving thousands stranded, according to OCHA. By the end of 2019, it is estimated that over 233,000 Yemenis would have been killed as a result of fighting and the humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, UNHCR has documented more than 20,000 civilians killed and injured by the fighting since March 2015. 16 million people wake up hungry every day, and UNHCR identifies 24.3 million people in need in the country in July 2020. Mainly due to the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition, Yemen, which has to import around 90% of its main food stables today faces the “Worst humanitarian crisis in the world” according to the UN.
Among the international and internal migrants, there are no regular migrants in Yemen, as all of them are asylum seekers or refugees en route towards other destinations. These categories are dealt with in the following sections.
The ongoing war and past conflicts in Yemen have led many Yemenis to flee. There is no up to date centralised information about the total of Yemenis migrating out of Yemen, however, figures can be gathered in different reports mentioned in media outlets. Around 190,000 Yemenis and foreign nationals have fled Yemen’s war after Saudi Arabia entered the country’s civil war in March 2015. At least 37,000 Yemenis arrived in Djibouti, just 100km west of the Yemeni town of Taiz. According to the UNHCR, at least 14,000 Yemeni refugees have sought shelter in Somalia. Ranked as one of the 10 poorest countries in the world by the UN, Somalia is considered one of the least politically stable countries, and faces a continued threat from al-Shabab jihadists. However, war in Yemen turned Somalia into an unlikely safe haven for Yemeni refugees. Somalia is a member of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which obligates the country to allow entry to asylum-seekers. However, refugee groups said the country needs major support and capacity building in order to provide proper care for those who have been displaced. Figures from 2018 also show that smaller numbers of Yemenis applied for asylum in Egypt (5,032) and in Germany (3,992).
Due to access constraints, IOM DTM currently only collects data on displacement in 12 governorates out of 22. Real figures are therefore expected to be much higher. IOM DTM’s latest studies estimate the number of people displaced since March 2015 to be 3.65 million, 80% of which have been displaced for more than a year. 66,499 families were newly displaced in 2019. During the first six months of 2020, some 10,000 displaced Yemenis received psychosocial support from UNHCR partners for anxiety, stress, instability, psychological trauma, and attempted suicide. Twelve per cent of all cases were children, while four per cent were referred to specialised mental health services and received targeted assistance. The water and sanitation situation in many of the displacement sites in Yemen is extremely worrying, and displaced Yemenis are finding it difficult to access health care. This is particularly the case in Marib where the majority of people (66,000) have been displaced this year. UNHCR counted 1747 displacement sites in late 2019 like stadiums or IDP camps. Many IDPs also live in makeshift shelters in urban and rural areas. IDP returnees are estimated to be 1.28 million. Only Syria, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo have larger internal displacement driven by conflict. Yemen is home to 272,112 refugees and 11,377 asylum seekers, predominantly in the West of the country, with 50.1% in the Aden governorate and 39.8% in Amanat al Asimah. 4.4% reside in Hadramaut and 3.3% in Lahj. According to December 2019 figures, Somali account for 90.5% of them, Ethiopians 5.7%, Syrians 1.4%, Iraqis 1.2%, Eritrea 0.7%, Palestinians 0.3% and Sudanese for 0.2%.Trends are shifting as Ethiopians now make up 90% of the arrivals into Yemen while Somalis account for around 10% of arrivals in 2019. All of these refugees and migrants intend to transit through Yemen en route to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries where they hope to find work. The mixed migration flow to Yemen is largely made up of young men, however, nearly 20% are women and around 10% are children. High unemployment rates and political insecurity are major drivers for Ethiopians and Somalis to migrate to the Gulf, where they hope to find employment, better opportunities, and security. However, migrants and refugees travelling along this route face violations of their human rights at every stage of the journey, with a high risk of being trafficked, kidnapped, or dying at sea on one of the busiest maritime mixed migration routes in the world. COVID 19 related restrictions have led to a 90 per cent reduction in migrant arrivals in Yemen between February to June 2020, they also have caused tens of thousands of Ethiopian migrants to be stranded on their journeys. These migrants face increasing dangers throughout Yemen, without vital services or a means to return home. With the route through the country blocked and migrants being forcibly transferred between governorates, at least 14,500 migrants today are estimated to be stranded in Yemen’s Aden, Marib, Lahj and Saada governorates. Migrants are reportedly scapegoated as carriers of the COVID virus and, as a result, suffer exclusion and violence. The largest number of arrivals in 2019 were recorded in April (18,320) and May (18,904), a time of the year when there are good sea conditions in the Gulf of Aden and a perceived higher level of charity due to Ramadan. In April 2020, there were only 1,725 migrant arrivals in Yemen while in May, 1,195 were recorded. The Bab el Mandeb strait separating the Arabian Peninsula from the Horn of Africa, which name literally means “the Gate of Tears” in Arabic, therefore is the location of dual migration flows in both ways between some of the poorest, most dangerous and warring countries of the world.
As per the United States’ Department of State 2019 report on Yemen and the global 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, 20th edition, NGOs reported vulnerable populations in Yemen were at an increased risk of human trafficking due to large-scale violence driven by protracted armed conflict, civil unrest and lawlessness, and worsening economic conditions. Migrant workers from the Horn of Africa who remained or arrived in Yemen during the reporting period may have endured intensified violence, and women and children may have become vulnerable to trafficking. In 2014, the government adopted a bill that it subsequently referred to their Parliament, which aimed to combat all forms of trafficking, protect and assist victims, generate societal awareness of the risks of trafficking in order to reduce the phenomenon, and promote national cooperation. The legitimate government of the Republic of Yemen did not have full oversight of the courts and therefore did not report efforts to prosecute, convict, or punish trafficking offenses in 2019. In addition, the government was unable to pursue any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government officials complicit in trafficking offenses, despite reports of some international agencies of officials engaged in trafficking in both urban and rural areas, including the domestic servitude of children and women, sex trafficking of women, recruitment and use of child soldiers by the government of the Republic of Yemen Armed Forces, and forced labor of migrant workers. Human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Yemen, and traffickers exploit victims from Yemen who reside abroad. The ongoing conflict, lack of rule of law, economic degradation, pervasive corruption, and fractional territorial control have disrupted some trafficking patterns and exacerbated others. The report underlines that Ethiopians and Somalis traveled voluntarily to Yemen with the hope of employment in Arabian Gulf countries, but traffickers exploited some women and children among this population in sex trafficking or domestic servitude in Yemen, and traffickers forced some to work on khat farms and in other industries. Other workers migrated based on fraudulent offers of employment as domestic workers in Yemen, where traffickers subsequently exploited them in sex trafficking or forced labor. Past reports suggested traffickers forced some Yemeni children, mostly boys, to work in domestic service, begging, or in small shops after migrating to Aden or Sana’a, or to Saudi Arabia. Traffickers, employers, and some security officials also exploited some of these children in sex trafficking in Saudi Arabia. In hotels and clubs in the Governorates of Sana’a, Aden, and Taiz, traffickers reportedly exploited girls as young as 15 years old in commercial sex. Prior to the conflict, most child sex tourists in Yemen were from Saudi Arabia, with a smaller percentage originating from other Gulf nations. Some Saudi men used legally contracted “temporary marriages,” authorized by relevant Islamic authorities, for the purpose of sexually exploiting Yemeni girls, some reportedly as young as 10 years old. Civil society organizations and media outlets continued to assess that trafficking of Yemeni children gradually increased since the civil war commenced, and children were disproportionately affected by its protracted escalation. A July 2020 UNHCR’s field visit to the Amran governorate to assess the needs of IDPs confirmed increasing protection concerns including child labour and begging by women, particularly those whose husbands and sons are fighting on the frontlines. Early marriage is also on the rise. Displaced children are more exposed to violence and harassment by peers from the host community, and the vast majority are out of school.
Yemen ratified both the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Refugee Protocol in 1980. UNHCR encourages newcomers to register their status as asylum-seekers if they wish with authorities to legalize their stay, protect them against forced returns, and give them access to health and education services. However, access to asylum procedures in Yemen is restricted. The civil war has also resulted in the enforcement in practice of two parallel asylum systems that bear pre-conflict limitations, in particular, the lack of national refugee-specific legislation and the absence of a refugee status determination (RSD) procedure. At the request of the National Salvation Government of the Republic of Yemen (NSG) in 2016, UNHCR agreed to transfer responsibility for registration and RSD to the NSG, a process which is still ongoing but nearing completion. Registration of Somalis (conducted by NSG) as well as registration of non-Somalis and RSD (conducted by UNHCR) have all been suspended in the North since 2016. The NSG has repeatedly affirmed that it has withdrawn prima facie recognition for Somalis. In the South, Somalis continue to enjoy prima facie recognition and the authorities continue registration of Somalis. UNHCR carries out registration and RSD under its mandate for all other asylum seekers. Concerning the opposite party, the Hadi Government, along with UNHCR, registered in 2019 a total of 8,436 refugees through four registration centres in the south of Yemen. However, it is estimated that a staggering 150,000 refugees and asylum-seekers remain unregistered, which is leaving them at higher risk of abuse and lack of access to essential services such as health and education. The war the country is experiencing hampers registration efforts and administration availability for such tasks. Regarding human trafficking, as detailed above, the 2014 bill aiming to combat all forms of trafficking, protect and assist victims, generate societal awareness of the risks of trafficking in order to reduce the phenomenon, and promote national cooperation cannot be fully implemented due to the war either. Article 248 of the Yemeni penal code prescribes a 10-year prison sentence for anyone who “buys, sells or gives as a present, or deals in human beings; and anyone who brings into the country or exports from it a human being with the intent of taking advantage of him.” This prescribed penalty is commensurate with that for other grave crimes, such as rape. Article 161 of Yemen’s Child Rights Law specifically criminalizes the prostitution of children. The US department of state commented that despite the availability of these statutes, Yemen reported only 14 arrests and six convictions for child labor trafficking. The government did not provide information, regarding the sentences assigned to the convicted traffickers. There have been indications from some international agencies of government officials’ complicity in trafficking. In January 2020, however, the government entered into an agreement through the UN on a roadmap for implementation of the existing action plan to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
In terms of coordination mechanisms for the humanitarian and protection response by national and international partners as well as relevant authorities, UNHCR leads the Protection, Shelter/NFIs (Non-Food Items), Camp Coordination and Camp Management clusters for IDPs, and co-leads with IOM the Refugee and Migrants Multi-Sector (RMMS) for refugees and asylum-seekers. UNHCR also ensures that humanitarian interventions contribute to the overall development of the country. UNHCR also supports IDPs and refugees’ resilience from the early stages of their humanitarian response. The UN’s International Office for Migrations lists the following main donors: the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), the IOM Development Fund, the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the UK Department for International Development and the US Department of State, Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. The OCHA managed Yemen Humanitarian Fund (YHF) mobilizes and channels resources to humanitarian partners to respond to Yemen’s critical needs. The Fund operates within the parameters of the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP), with the objective of expanding the delivery of humanitarian assistance by focusing on critical priorities and needs. YHF specifies that “Country-Based Pooled Funds are managed by OCHA and made available to national and international NGOs, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and UN agencies. Given the importance of broadening partnership in order to reach people in need in the most underserved areas; the YHF prioritizes the allocation of funds to NGOs. The YHF also supports national NGOs with a view to enhance their capacities, as most of these organisations have better access to people in need in hard-to-reach areas.” In 2019, 24 donors contributed almost $169 million to the YHF, making it the largest CBPF in the world for a fourth consecutive year. The UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) brings together 14 leading UK aid agencies to raise money at times of humanitarian crisis in poorer countries. Nine DEC member charities are currently responding and have open appeals for Yemen: Action Against Hunger, Age International, the British Red Cross, CARE International, the Islamic Relief, Oxfam, Save the Children, Tearfund and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD). CAFOD is able to respond with an aid partner on the ground keeping name confidential for security reasons. Their work includes nutrition for mothers and babies, food for families facing hunger, water and sanitation work, mobile medical clinics.
There are four Catholic parishes in Yemen: the Sacred Heart of Jesus Church, Hodeidah; the St. Francis of Assisi Church, Aden; the St. Mary Help of Christians Church, Sana’a and the St. Theresa of the Child Jesus Church, Taiz. They all used to serve the former 4,000 strong Catholic international workers community in the country, which left due to the war.
It is worth mentioning the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) partnership with the Islamic relief, whose activities are detailed on CRS web page dedicated to Yemen, including emergency nutrition, cholera prevention and relief, water sanitation and hygiene. ICMC resettlement professionals are also involved in counselling and legal guidance of people referred to by the UNHCR. There are no Caritas bodies operating in the country. Despite this, in 2019 Caritas Italiana supported a program in favor of Yemeni refugees who fled the country and took refuge in Puntland, a relatively safe region of Somalia located on the opposite side of the Red Sea. This program includes health training courses for women and supplies tools in fishing practice for fishermen to help them become self supporting. Caritas Poland has announced in 2020 that it will organise a donation scheme dedicated to the reconstruction of a maternity ward in the war-torn country. Christian missionaries and NGOs affiliated with missionary groups do operate in the country; most restrict their activities to the provision of medical services; others are employed in teaching and social services. Invited by the Government, the Sisters of Charity run homes for the poor and persons with disabilities in Sana’a, Taiz, Hodeida, and Aden. On 4 March 2016, unknown gunmen killed 16 people including four Catholic nuns inside a home for older people in Aden. An Indian priest, Tom Ozhonaniel, was kidnapped for 18 months and liberated thanks to the mediation of Qaboos Bin Said, Sultan of Oman. The Missionaries of Charity have vowed to continue their work in Yemen, despite the killing of four sisters serving at a retirement home in Aden. The order announced, in a message relayed to the Fides news service, that “we will continue our service to the poor and the needy.” Pope Francis described the crime as satanic, stating that the nuns were “martyrs of today”, adding that they were killed by both the attackers, and a “globalization of indifference.” His statement was published, including the following quote:“In the name of God, he calls upon all parties in the present conflict to renounce violence, and to renew their commitment to the people of Yemen, particularly those most in need, whom the Sisters and their helpers sought to serve.” In his speech to diplomats in January 2020, the Holy Father decried the “general indifference on the part of the international community” to the human suffering in Yemen.
It is worth noting that the UNHCR and the Thani Bin Abdullah Bin Thani Al-Thani Humanitarian Fund announced in March 2020 Doha Sheikh Thani’s largest contribution so far to UNHCR. More than US$43 million, channelled through four separate agreements, will fund UNHCR’s work in support of refugees and displaced people in Yemen, Lebanon, Bangladesh and Chad.
Despite the Hudaydah Agreement signed in December 2018, the fighting continued in many areas of the country, such as Hajjah in the north, Al Dhale in the south and Hudaydah along the west coast. Within a year, another 400,000 Yemenis were forced to flee their homes, eventually adding up to one-eighth of the entire Yemeni population who had become displaced at least once, over the last five years. In 2019 and 2020, unprecedented heavy rain and flooding from May onwards, added to a locusts invasion, causing catastrophic damage to homes and the families’ livelihoods, adding to their misery. Thousands of families who had already lost their home due to the fighting had yet again, their temporary shelters, beddings and essential kitchen supplies, destroyed. This is particularly dangerous as Yemen is also facing the worst cholera outbreak in modern times, a waterborne disease worsened by the flood situation. As a result, the number of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity is forecast to increase from 2 million to 3.2 million in the second half of 2020. Political differences led to renewed fighting around Aden in the south of Yemen from August 2019 when the Southern Transitional Council took control of the city. The power-sharing deal brokered by Saudi Arabia that was signed in November 2019, is yet to be fully implemented. Informal negotiations between the two sides of the war started first, paving the way for the Houthis to recently announce their desire for direct dialogue with Saudi Arabia in Riyadh, provided that it’s public. At the same time, Houthi missiles and drones still penetrate Saudi airspace and Saudis continue striking Yemeni territory. By escalating military operations against Riyadh, the Houthis are reportedly seeking to build themselves a position of strength for public negotiations. Yemen remains at war with no end in sight, often the focus of the Holy Father’s prayers and calls for peace.
The country falls in the jurisdiction of the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia, along with Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap. shepherds the Apostolic Vicariate of Southern Arabia.