Tens of thousands of African migrants, mostly Ethiopians, stranded in Yemen have been harassed and forcibly transferred internally amid fears they are spreading the coronavirus, according to the UN’s migration agency.
Stigmatised because people claimed they were carriers of the virus, at least 14,500 migrants have been hounded, rounded up and transported to different provinces far from the main urban centres, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported on Tuesday.
They remain stranded without adequate food, water or shelter in the war-torn country, which is going through what the UN is calling the “world’s worst humanitarian crisis”.
“For nearly six years, Yemen has been an extremely unsafe place to be a migrant,” Christa Rottensteiner, IOM’s chief of mission in Yemen, said in a statement.
“COVID-19 has made this situation worse – migrants are scapegoated as carriers of the virus and, as a result, suffer exclusion and violence,” she added.
Over the course of Yemen’s five-year civil war, African migrants determined to reach oil-rich Saudi Arabia have endured unspeakable cruelties – torture, rape, detention, extortion – often perilously close to the front lines.
Thousands of Saudi-bound Ethiopian workers cross Yemen each month, but restrictions aimed at curbing the rapid spread of COVID-19 have cut arrivals by 90 percent this year, IOM said, with most of the stranded migrants sleeping out in the open or in unsafe abandoned buildings, putting them at a greater risk of catching the virus.
Ethiopians trek hundreds of miles from their home villages through countries such as Djibouti or Somalia, then across the sea and through Yemen.
In many cases, migrants are at the mercy of smugglers who may imprison and torture them, leave them stranded along the route or sell them into slave labour.
One migrant said he was held and tortured by traffickers for almost two months before reaching the Yemeni capital, Sanaa.
“We are all tired. It is hard to sleep on the pavement in the dirt and rain with cars driving by,” the Ethiopian who was forcibly moved to the port city of Aden was quoted as saying by the IOM.
“Sometimes, people come and kick us or hit us with sticks while we are trying to sleep. I was wrong for coming here. We all want to go home.”
At least 14,500 migrants are stranded across Yemen due to COVID-19.
— IOM – UN Migration 🇺🇳 (@UNmigration) July 15, 2020
Another said: “There is no food or water, or anything. To sleep, we use cardboard and sleep at the traffic lights.”
IOM spokesman Paul Dillon declined to give specifics regarding who was responsible for the transfers.
An unknown number of the stranded migrants could be held in detention centres that had poor hygiene standards even before the outbreak of COVID-19, he told journalists in Geneva. However, locals and charities were helping some of the migrants.
Although government authorities have recorded at least 1,516 infections and 429 deaths as of Wednesday, aid workers, the UN and doctors say the virus is surging across the country and overwhelming a health system already in shambles after five years of war between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition supporting Yemen’s internationally recognised government.