Yemen’s forgotten people

July 14, 2020

For the refugees and migrants stuck in war-torn Yemen, the coronavirus has made everything much worse.

In May, Houthi authorities announced the first coronavirus case in areas under their control. It was a Somali national found dead in a hotel in Sana’a. Since then, Yemen’s 400,000 migrants and refugees, most of them from Ethiopia and Somalia, are being treated with suspicion by locals. They are refused work, assistance and sometimes even forcibly transferred to remote locations in other governorates, labelled as carriers of the virus.

Despite the six years of war in the country, refugees have largely stuck it out, out of options and dependent on assistance from locals and aid organisations. But 80% of Yemenis themselves depend on some form of humanitarian aid and with funding for aid organisations decreasing over the years, resources are stretched thin.

Add to this the thousands of migrants who are now stranded here because of the travel restrictions imposed to counter the pandemic. Every year, tens of thousands of migrants arrive from the Horn of Africa, hoping to cross into the wealthy Gulf countries in order to find work. In 2019, 138,000 migrants arrived in Yemen, according to the United Nation’s International Organisation of Migration (IOM). At least 14,500 of these are estimated to be stranded though the numbers may be higher.

While COVID-19 restrictions have led to a 90% reduction in migrant arrivals, for those who are already here, it is an uncertain wait under increasingly fraught conditions. They remain vulnerable to abuses and exploitations at the hands of smugglers and traffickers. They have been cases of migrants being held prisoner and tortured while their families back home are extorted for money.

Additionally, they are increasingly experiencing verbal and physical harassment, detention, restrictions of movement and evictions from urban centres in this new climate of xenophobia that has set in since the start of the pandemic.

The IOM has been providing shelter, healthcare, essential items like hygiene kits and other kinds of support for at least 60,000 migrants but funding shortages means thousands will be left out of their purview. Many of them will be forced to spend their days and nights out in the open, without access to basic necessities like food, water and healthcare, making them more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

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