f. Protection of Refugees
The IOM reported that new arrivals of migrants declined significantly due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Between January and September, the IOM recorded somewhat more than 33,000 arrivals, compared to more than 84,000 during the same period in 2019.
The country received refugees from a variety of countries. Many refugees became increasingly vulnerable due to the worsening security and economic situation in the country. Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants shared in the general poverty and insecurity of the country.
According to UNHCR, there were 283,898 refugees and asylum seekers in the country as of August, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia. Many were attempting to reach or return to Saudi Arabia for work and had entered the country based on false information from smugglers that the conflict in the country was over, according to UNHCR and the IOM. Many took refuge at the Kharaz refugee camp and towns in the south. The ROYG could not provide physical protection to refugees or migrants; many were held in detention centers operated by the Houthis in the north and by the government in the south. UNHCR and other organizations stated there were reports of refugees and migrants facing physical and sexual abuse, torture, and forced labor in both Houthi and ROYG-controlled facilities, and that many refugees and migrants were vulnerable to human trafficking.
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: According to the IOM, migrants in the country continued to face egregious forms of abuse at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, including sexual and gender-based violence, torture, abduction for ransom, forced labor, and physical violence. The IOM considered women and girls to be particularly vulnerable and more likely to be trafficked and exposed to sexual abuse. The OHCHR reported that UAE-supported Security Belt Forces (SBF) committed rape and other forms of serious sexual violence targeting foreign migrants and other vulnerable groups (see section 1.c, Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; and 1.g, Abuses in Internal Conflict.).
These risks were compounded by armed hostilities concentrated around Shabwah, Abyan, al-Bayda, al-Jawf, Ma’rib, and Sa’ada governorates, and by internal movement restrictions due to COVID-19. These factors resulted in more migrants becoming stranded or trapped for longer periods in areas without assistance and at risk of being injured or killed, according to the IOM. Multiple NGOs and media reported that criminal smuggling groups built a large number of “camps” near the Yemen-Saudi border city of Haradh and in other parts of the country, where militants held migrants for extortion and ransom.
The UN Department of Economic Affairs reported there were 385,600 migrants, including women and children, as of mid-2019. The IOM estimated that more than 14,500 migrants were stranded in August because of the COVID-19 border closures in Aden, Ma’rib, Lahj, and Sa’ada governorates. Through the end of July, the IOM assisted in the return of 946 migrants from the country.
Authorities in both the north and south of the country often detained migrants. According to the IOM, migrants in detention who could afford to pay for their release were reportedly loaded on trucks and moved to other governorates where they were left in secluded areas, on the outskirts of towns, or forcibly transferred to the Sana’a Immigration, Passport, and Naturalization Authority facility. In the north, from April to June, Houthi authorities arrested and relocated 1,500 migrants to the south. The IOM estimated that approximately 5,000 migrants were living in Aden on the streets.
The IOM reported both the ROYG and Houthis detained migrants due to concerns the migrants could be recruited by the other party, and to scapegoat migrants for being carriers of COVID-19. UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations faced challenges accessing detention centers to monitor detained refugees and asylum seekers.
While the government generally deported migrants back to their country of origin, the Houthis frequently detained migrants for indefinite periods.
HRW and the IOM reported overcrowding in detention facilities, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse, with detainees showing signs of sores and festering wounds.
According to local authorities, 390 migrants were relocated from detention centers in Houthi-controlled areas to al-Jawf, and from mid-April to mid-May, 486 were moved to Ta’iz. The Houthis reportedly left at least 20,000 migrants stranded along the border with Saudi Arabia. As of June, approximately 7,000 migrants were reportedly still on the Saudi-Yemen border.
The IOM reported in September that an estimated 4,000 or more migrants in Ma’rib were stranded across the governorate, with many of them having lived there for more than six months, unable to continue their journey northwards due to movement restrictions along the main roads. In addition, more than 500 migrants were under risk of eviction in Ma’rib due to a lack of acceptance from the local community.
HRW reported that in April, Houthi forces forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from Sa’ada in the northern part of the country. The Houthi forces described the migrants as “coronavirus carriers,” killing dozens and forcing them to the Saudi border. Saudi border guards reportedly fired on the migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area (see the Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for Saudi Arabia).
From January 1 through July 31, the IOM reported that 13,416 citizens returned to the country from Saudi Arabia and 366 from the Horn of Africa.
According to reports, the head of the militia that previously detained refugees at the Bureiqa migrant detention center was arrested and all refugees were released.
Access to Asylum: No law addresses the granting of refugee status or asylum, and there was no system for providing protection to asylum seekers. In past years the government provided automatic refugee status to Somalis who entered the country. The Houthis attempted to take over the refugee status determination process in areas under their control, leading many refugees to have lapsed documentation. Houthi armed groups arbitrarily detained migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in multiple facilities in Houthi-controlled territories. UNHCR was generally able to access populations to provide assistance and was working with the Houthis to come to a resolution on registration of refugees. UNHCR continued to conduct refugee status determinations in southern territory under ROYG control, in coordination with the government.
Freedom of Movement: Freedom of movement was difficult for all persons in the country, including refugees, in view of the damage to roads, bridges, and other basic infrastructure, and COVID-19 travel restrictions. Most of the country’s airports had significant damage or were closed to commercial traffic, making air travel difficult for all, including refugees. In areas controlled by Houthis, unofficial checkpoints blocked and delayed the movement of individuals and goods.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees lacked access to basic services due to the continuing conflict. The United Nations estimated only approximately half of the country’s public-health facilities remained functional during the year. Many were closed due to damage caused by the conflict, some were destroyed, and all facilities faced shortages in supplies, including medications and fuel to run generators.