Humanitarian crises

Why are African men and women still fleeing to Yemen?

The search for a better life continues to drive people from the Horn of Africa to Yemen.

Some migrants are aware of that there is a war in Yemen but decide to embark on the journey to they Yemeni coast anyway [Reuters/Abduljabbar Zeyad]

Conflict has been raging in Yemen since 2015, yet people from Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea remain undeterred to thread on the perilous routes only to encounter dangerous conditions when they get there. To paraphrase the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire, they continue to flee their lands, as home won't let them stay.

Just how dangerous this journey can be was made clear last month, when a boat carrying 150 Somali refugees was attacked by a helicopter and a military ship near the Yemeni port of Hodeidah. At least 42 were killed.

Since 2013, nearly 290,000 refugees and migrants have landed on the Yemeni coast. Nearly 80 percent of these were Ethiopians, and most of the rest were Somalis. Most journey to Yemen in the hope of using it as a transit point, while others look to stay in Yemen, often unaware of the dangers.

Between January 2006 and April 2016, more than 700,000 persons reportedly crossed from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, with Somalis mostly staying in Yemen as refugees and Ethiopians travelling onwards to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.

So why are people from the Horn still trying to reach a conflict-ridden country and what should be done to stop them from embarking on such a dangerous journey?

Awareness doesn't change decisions

The Ethiopian state of emergency that was declared October 2016 continues to fuel outward displacement, and Ethiopian asylum seekers interviewed in Yemen, are increasingly referring to the unrest as a key reason for their migration out of the country.

Somalis cited a number of reasons for migrating including economic opportunities, tribal conflict, poverty and hardship and conflict between the government and al-Shabab.

Two reasons for attempting the journey that most people from the Horn share are a sense of responsibility to their families and positive perceptions of migration.

The most common smuggling route to Yemen starts from Djibouti's coast. Most of the asylum seekers, especially Ethiopians, arriving in Djibouti are aware of the ongoing conflict in Yemen, but think it will not affect them. Some think the ongoing conflict and resulting lack of rule of law, will allow them to disembark and transit through Yemen, more easily and without being stopped by local authorities.

A mix of misinformation by brokers and smugglers, political reasons and migration success stories seen on social media and heard through the community grapevine were all significant drivers of migration, even when migrants have some information on the conflict in Yemen.

Once they arrive in Djibouti, many face shortages of water and food and have to resort to begging or working menial jobs to pay for the journey to Yemen.

These are perilous routes run by well-coordinated networks of smugglers. The smuggler networks between the point of embarkation in Djibouti and disembarkation in Yemen are often coordinated in terms of sharing information on when boats would set off and arrive.

Once asylum seekers land in Yemen, they are abducted and taken to smuggling dens for weeks on end, until they pay extortion fees to secure their release. If they are unable to pay, they are beaten, raped, tortured or put to work before eventually being released.

Oftentimes other smugglers would recapture those travelling further north after their release. The threat of abduction and kidnapping for ransom remains significant for those moving, and particularly Ethiopian nationals, who are perceived to be able to pay ransoms more readily than Somalis.

Awareness campaigns are not enough

Various agencies have been campaigning to raise awareness of the dangers of embarking on the journey to Yemen. UNHCR launched the "Dangerous Crossings" campaign in February 2017 featuring a song with prominent musicians from the region. The song is promising in that the various languages of the region are incorporated and the message "thinking carefully before deciding to cross to Yemen" is emphasised.

In Somaliland, there's a practice informally known as "hooyo ha tahriibin" (loosely translated as mothers begging their sons, primarily, to not migrate illegally)

But how many people thinking of leaving their countries have TV or internet access in order to see the campaign's message? The majority of them receive information primarily through their communities: friends, families, relatives, churches and mosques, radio stations, coffee shop gatherings, et cetera.

They are also more likely to value the opinions of people personally known to them rather than celebrities. There is little relation between the would-be asylum seekers and artists featured in this campaign.

The campaign also doesn't give details of what the "dangerous crossings" entail. It is void of practical details and real-life examples of what people can expect from this journey. The likelihood of the campaign having a trickle-down effect is therefore quite slim.

Therefore, awareness-raising should be done through informal means, using communication channels people are most receptive to. It should incorporate local communities, families and relatives, returnees, respected elders and community figures, church and mosque leaders, local radios' journalists and editors. When possible, viable alternative options also need to be introduced. In Somaliland, there's a practice informally known as "hooyo ha tahriibin" (loosely translated as mothers begging their sons, primarily, to not migrate illegally). It's an incentive where parents purchase cars for their children in an attempt to get them to stay and find a source of local income. Other times, parents intervene by sending their children to universities in neighbouring countries.

That being said, these efforts are unlikely to stem migration. As long as the political crises, conflict and security issues, economic, environmental and social problems persist in the region, people will continue to look outwards for better prospects.

It is known that a high percentage of new arrivals on the shores of Yemen from the Horn every month are repeat asylum seekers. Approximately 25 percent are estimated to have tried to make the journey to live and work in Yemen or to move through to Saudi Arabia.

These findings suggest that informing people about the risks through awareness-raising campaigns may not act as a deterrent, indicating a clear need for a long-term strategy for finding solutions and viable alternatives for a better quality of life.

Awareness campaigns are still important because they allow people to make informed decisions and equip them with a full understanding of what lies ahead.

Idil Osman is a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). She's currently working on a research project called the Research and Evidence Facility that's examining the root causes of regular and irregular migration from the Horn of Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy. 

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