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Population Displacement, Civil War and COVID-19: Ethiopian and Somali Migrants in Yemen

Written by Vaidehi Meharia

Research Associate at Law & Order

St. Xaviers College, Kolkata

Source: IOM, OCHA, FEWSNET, ACLED, Oxford Analytica

Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.


Internal and international migration has long shaped the demographic, economic and political structures of the Middle East - from the Syrian Refugee Crisis to the continuous influx of migrants from neighbouring countries such as Ethiopia and Somalia. By 2015, the Middle East was home to almost 40 per cent of the world’s displaced persons. The past decade has seen the countries of the Middle East emerge as points of origin, transit and destination for migrants within and outside the region. While some of this growth can be attributed to individuals and families seeking improved economic opportunities, the majority of this surge in migration is a consequence of armed conflict and ethnic strife which have compelled people to leave their countries of origin in search of conflict-free areas. This drastic increase in the number of displaced persons looking for safe havens and new livelihoods has made the Middle East the region with the fastest-growing international migrant and forcibly displaced population (Pew Research Centre, 2016).

Similarly, Africa, throughout its history, has experienced vast voluntary and forced migratory movements, which has extensively contributed to the continent’s demographic landscape in the 21st Century. Most Africans residing in border regions of the continent live in inherently unstable and violent environments. This, when combined with the existing issues of ecological and economic downturns has led them into a perpetual cycle of migration (International Organisation for Migration). Eventually, intercontinental migration from Africa has become a coping strategy against the war-like situations prevailing in several African countries. The irony here is that while migrants leave their homes in search for more stable political situations, more often than not, they end up in countries and regions which are conflict-ridden with unstable political landscapes. One such migrant destination for Africans is Yemen. Migration between Yemen and the Horn of Africa has been taking place for many years, for the purposes of trade, family reunification, religious pilgrimage, educational opportunities and in times of emergency. Yemen forms a point of transit for these migrants to travel from their countries of origin to either Europe or the other prosperous nations of the Gulf. However, there does exist a category of migrants who stay back in Yemen, seeking jobs, asylum or simply a quieter environment to live in.

Yemen and its 29 million-strong population, since 2014, are caught in a devastating conflict that has wreaked havoc in the country. Divided between the Houthi rebels in the North and the Yemeni Government in the South, eighty per cent of the Yemeni population now relies on humanitarian aid (al-Ansi, 2020). The ongoing conflict has had serious humanitarian and geopolitical implications on not only the domestic population of Yemen but also on the existing and incoming migrant population in the country. Yemen plays a crucial role since it links three continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia simultaneously and hence it's the epicentre of one of the world’s busiest mixed migration routes.

Most of the migrants arriving in Yemen originate from the Horn of Africa and mostly consist of Ethiopians and Somalis (Davy, 2017).

Large parts of both Ethiopia and Somalia face severe drought conditions, political instability and civil conflict which has become the primary cause for the forced displacement of its citizens.

Yemen and the other Gulf countries’ lucrative employment opportunities have acted as an incentive to migrate to these economically challenged African citizens. Both the countries have also experienced their share of political instability and civil conflict which has been the primary cause for the forced displacement of its citizens. While Yemen has adopted a welcoming attitude towards the incoming migrants from Somalia, those from Ethiopia have faced a different fate altogether.

A comparatively hostile attitude is adopted against the Ethiopian migrants wherein they are subject to imprisonment, and even deportation (Human Rights Watch, 2009). Humanitarian workers have previously reported to the Human Rights Watch that this harsh treatment of the Ethiopian migrants is partially explained by the existing animosities between Ethiopia and Somalia that run deep due to Ethiopia’s military intervention in Somalia in 2006.

As of late, however, even the Somali migrants have been subject to severe human rights violations.

Asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Yemen have endured terrible human rights abuses for decades now. The Yemeni Government has tortured, raped and even executed migrants and refugees from Ethiopia and Somalia in a detention centre of Aden. The Human Rights Watch stated that the Yemeni authorities continue to send migrants out to sea without allowing them to seek the protection they came for in the first place or even challenge their deportation (Human Rights Watch, 2018). Furthermore, the plethora of dangers that the incoming migrants and refugees already face, the outbreak of the civil war in the country has only contributed to the myriad of human rights abuse (Wilson-Smith, 2019).

Most migrants are unaware of the proxy war that has developed between the Houthi rebels and the pro-Government forces supported by Saudi Arabia after the former overthrew the Yemeni government in 2014 due to which they are subject to lack of basic necessities important for survival and live in increasingly unstable political conditions.

Both sides have adopted anti-migrant practices fearing that migrants may be recruited and exploited by the enemy.

Yemen is witnessing a reversal in its policy of welcoming Somali migrants who are now treated just like those hailing from Ethiopia (Wilson-Smith, 2019). They are abused, detained, deported en masse, and are refused access to asylum by the Houthi and the pro-government forces [1]. There are also several instances of the violent conflict directly affecting migrants as they have suffered direct attacks from the warring parties. In 2017, a coalition military helicopter was responsible for opening fire on a boat carrying about 140 Somali migrants. Within Yemen, migrants are unable to access key transit points into Saudi Arabia due to the heavy fighting in the area (Associated Press, 2017). Most migrants also get roped into the conflict by getting recruited as a militia by either side and only a few of them are able to make it out of the conflict unscathed (United Nations).

As if the civil war was not enough, the African migrants travelling to Yemen in the past few months have also been accused of the spread of Coronavirus in Yemen. Last year, over 138,000 had made the perilous journey from Somali and Ethiopia to Yemen. This mobility came to a grinding halt since Spring 2020 as Yemen closed its borders in April 2020. While the number of incoming Somalians has reduced considerably owing to better political conditions at home, the same cannot be said for the Ethiopian migrants. Border restrictions in Yemen have curbed migrant influx by ninety percent and have left tens of thousands of Ethiopians in Yemen trapped in limbo. More than 14,500 migrants (mostly Ethiopian) in the region are stigmatized as the carriers of the Virus for which they are forcibly hounded, rounded up, sent to different provinces, and rendered isolated without access to adequate food, water, and shelter (Associated Press, 2020).

Despite the fact that the Civil War and the Coronavirus Pandemic have amplified the dangers experienced by the migrants, the humanitarian crisis has received relatively little international policy attention. Moreover, the increasingly hostile policies adopted towards the migrants by both the warring sides in Yemen, in light of the War and the Pandemic has rendered it difficult for international organisations which work towards providing support to migrants to function smoothly. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has also struggled to strike a balance between maintaining a good relationship with the Yemeni government and persuading and pressuring the latter on behalf of those who have been wrongfully denied refugee protection in Yemen (Human Rights Watch, 2009). This lack of international attention on the plight of the African refugees and migrants in Yemen has become the major cause for the gross violation of their human rights.

The widespread violence and breakdown of law and order coupled with the concerted deportation programs are undertaken by the Houthi rebels and the pro-Government forces have done little to deter Ethiopians from making their journey through Yemen to find work in the Gulf States. Lack of education and awareness among the African citizens regarding the situation in Yemen has also proven to be significantly problematic as they are unaware of the true nature of the political conditions in Yemen. The Pandemic has only contributed to an increase of violation of the migrants’ rights in the region and this will continue until International Organisations supported by the leaders of the world order do not take definitive and concrete steps to bring some relief to the region. Above all, considered collectively, the prevailing situations and the complex interaction of factors that give impetus to the migration flows suggest that migration to and through Yemen will continue as long as the political instability and economic backwardness in Ethiopia and Somalia lasts and will continue to subject the incoming migrants to human rights violations and an unprecedented future.


[1] Houthis are Zaydi Shiites, or Zaydiyyah. Shiite Muslims are the minority community in the Islamic world and Zaydis are a minority of Shiites, significantly different in doctrine and beliefs from the Shiites who dominate in Iran, Iraq, and elsewhere. They overthrew the existing government of Yemen in 2014 and have been in power since then.

The pro-government forces refer to the ‘legitimate government’ of Yemen which is being supported and funded by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


1. al-Ansi, A. (2020). The African Refugees and Migrants Trapped Inside Yemen's war. Reuters.

2. Associated Press . (2020). African Migrants in Yemen Blamed for Coronavirus, Stranded Without Food: UN. Associated Press.

3. Associated Press. (2017). Ethiopians Deported En Masse by Saudi Arabia Allege Abuses. Associated Press.

4. Davy, D. (2017). Unpacking the Myths: Human Smuggling from and within the Horn of Africa. Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (East Africa and Yemen).

5. Human Rights Watch. (2009). Hostile Shores: Abuse and Refoulement of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Yemen. Human Rights Watch.

6. Human Rights Watch. (2018). Yemen: Detained African Migrants Tortured, Raped. Human Rights Watch.

7. International Organisation for Migration. (n.d.). Africa and the Middle East. International Organisation for Migration.

8. Khamis, J. (2020). Middle East migration Patterns Defy Generalization. Arab News

9. Pew Research Centre. (2016). Middle East’s Migrant Population More Than Doubles Since 2005. Pew Research Centre.

10. United Nations. (n.d.). African Migrants Reportedly Forcibly Recruited into Yemen War. United Nations Organisation.

11. Wilson-Smith, H. (2019). On the Move in a War Zone: Mixed Migration Flows to and through Yemen . Migration Policy Institute

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