They risked all to cross the Red Sea. Now a cruel fate awaits in Yemen

Fleeing Ethiopia and Somalia, refugees made their way across the world’s busiest migration route, only to be left in the hands of smugglers in a lawless land

Trafficker Ahmad Dabisi in a makeshift migrant cemetery just outside Ataq, Shabwa Province, Yemen.
Trafficker Ahmad Dabisi in a makeshift migrant cemetery just outside Ataq, Shabwa Province, Yemen. Photograph: Sam Tarling/Sana’a Center

Saudi Arabia was Tigrit’s dream: a place where she could find work as a cleaner or maid, and send money back to her husband and young daughter in Ethiopia. Now, like hundreds of thousands of East Africans who have left home and travelled across the Red Sea in search of a better life, she finds herself stranded in Yemen instead.

“We’re stuck. I don’t have food or money for phone credit to call home. I don’t have anything,” she said, sitting on the floor in a building site with no electricity or running water on the edge of the desert.

Yemen migration

Despite – or rather because of – the war that has raged for six years, desperate migrants and shrewd traffickers have been keen to exploit Yemen’s lawlessness as the EU has cracked down on Mediterranean crossings from Turkey and Libya. Far away from western border controls, by 2019 the Gulf of Aden became the busiest maritime migration route in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Twenty-year-old Tigrit has been sharing a room for the last three weeks with Oko, another young woman from Ethiopia’s Tigray region. The pair are doing their best to keep their lodgings clean: the room contains only some sleeping mats and cooking utensils, but the window has no glass, and dust, dirt and rubbish from the outside blows in.

They are the only women, but around 20 young men from Ethiopia and Somalia who have fled poverty or conflict are also milling around the building site in the town of Ataq, in government-controlled central Yemen. Unable to continue to the Saudi border because of frontline fighting and coronavirus road closures, but with no money to get home, they too hope this is just a temporary stop.

While the IOM has organised regular repatriation flights in the past from the southern city of Aden, Covid-19 means that the Ethiopian government has refused to take returnees.

Tigrit, a migrant from Ethiopia.
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Tigrit, 20, from Ethiopia, had hoped to find work as a cleaner or maid in Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Lina Malers

Like Tigrit, few of those stuck here were aware that Yemen is in the middle of a devastating war, complicating their journey and leaving them vulnerable to abuse and kidnapping for ransom. Almost no one appears to know that Saudi Arabia has been imprisoning Ethiopian migrants since the pandemic began, or that it is already trying to expel its population of Yemeni labourers – let alone those who enter illegally.

“Our smuggler is a nice man, he helped us find this place to stay, but some of them are bad men. I don’t care if I go to Saudi Arabia or go home. I just want to leave,” Tigrit said.

A record 138,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, made the perilous journey across the Red Sea to Yemen last year, which at its narrowest point is just 29km wide.

Pandemic border closures dampened arrivals in 2020, but at least 34,000 have tried to make the crossing so far this year. With a new conflict now engulfing Ethiopia’s Tigray region, aid organisations worry that the numbers will grow ever higher.

All put their lives in the hands of smugglers and traffickers who promise safe passage to the wealth of the oil-rich kingdom next door, some driven by reassurances from family and friends who have already made it. If they have enough money, some people will try the route more than once.

Co-ordinating through messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, local sales representatives recruit clients in towns and villages across Ethiopia, who pay between 10,000-15,000 Ethiopian birr (£200-£300) to walk or drive to port towns in Djibouti or Somalia.

From there, sea captains take over for another 10,000 birr to facilitate a journey that can take up to 24 hours on overcrowded and unsafe boats across the Gulf of Aden to landing points all over the white sand shores of south Yemen.

On arrival, migrants and refugees are usually picked up by a handler from their own country who speaks their language, as well as by Yemeni smugglers. Those who can afford it are driven around 1,000km to the Saudi border, sleeping in safe houses en route while smugglers pay off soldiers from Yemen’s different warring parties at checkpoints.

Those who can’t must walk for about two weeks through frontline territories, mountain passes and scorching desert, usually sleeping on the street, while getting shaken down by soldiers for phones and money. Columns of young African men and women walking northwards are now a common sight across the country, but Yemeni citizens who try to help are often reprimanded for their trouble, encountering issues at checkpoints if they offer lifts.

Ahmad Nasser Abdi, a 20-year-old from Oromia in Ethiopia, said he was one of 100 people who crossed the Red Sea in a small boat from Bosaso in Somalia at the beginning of November. He then walked for seven days to reach Ataq before realising that the road further north was closed.

“I would do any job. I would even stay here if there was work, but there isn’t,” he said.

Men from Ethiopia and Somalia sit by the roadside in Ataq, Shabwa Province, Yemen.
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Men from Ethiopia and Somalia in Ataq, Shabwa Province, Yemen. Photograph: Sam Tarling/Sana’a Center

Abdi’s story was echoed by many Ethiopians and Somalis whom the Observer met. Some, however, have faced worse, when smugglers take their charges to detention centres as soon as they land in Yemen. There they are beaten and tortured until their families send ransom money.

Steps, a local charity that distributes sun hats, food, water and plastic sandals to migrants when they come ashore, has started giving women who undertake the journey packets of birth control pills in case they are raped. “It happens a lot. Every step of the journey they are at risk of sexual abuse. If they are taken to a detention centre it’s a certainty,” said Ahmad Aidrus, a local migration researcher.

Those who make it north into rebel-controlled areas on the Saudi border have also become a source of income for the Houthis, who round up and arrest people found on the road, charging a 1,000 Saudi riyals (£200) “exit fee” before herding migrants into trucks, driving to the southern edges of their territory, and dumping them in the desert again.

Occupied with more pressing concerns, southern seperatist forces and those loyal to the Yemeni government for the most part turn a blind eye to the booming human-trafficking trade. As a result, smugglers operate with near impunity.

For Ahmad Dabisi, who began people-smuggling after the war broke out, business is good. He describes his work with pride, claiming to take good care of his clients to ensure repeat business. It’s become more difficult, he says, but he can still get small numbers of people to Saudi Arabia, smuggled in private cars.

On the outskirts of Ataq, Dabisi looks after a graveyard containing the corpses of seven of his charges, buried there after their families were informed. Over the years, 70 clients have died from disease, after getting into fights, or from drowning at sea, he estimates. Most lie in makeshift graveyards on the coast.

Alive or dead, for growing numbers of people, Yemen is becoming the final destination on a doomed journey. “If it wasn’t me, it would just be another smuggler doing this work. People will still keep coming anyway,” he said.