Refugees who arrived on Yemen's shores hours earlier make their way to the UN High Commission for Refugees Reception Centre. Photo: Evelyn Hockstein

2016 sets a new record for migration in Yemen

Despite the unstable situation in Yemen, a record number of migrants and refugees have arrived in Yemen in 2016. A total of 111,504 migrants and refugees have arrived from the Horn of Africa during the year, surpassing the previous record year of 2012 when 107,532 arrived, according to new figures from the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat.


An increased number of migrants and refugees from Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan have arrived in Yemen during 2016. The increase is happening simultaneously with an escalating conflict in Yemen where 80 % of the population are in need of humanitarian aid, and thus creating a complex and dangerous situation. Research suggests that migrants are aware of the situation in Yemen and some indicates that there is a perception that the chaos in Yemen means that it will be easier to transit through to Saudi Arabia.

Ethiopian migrants, who comprise the majority (approximately 85%) of the flows, are still determined to make the crossing to Yemen. Not many of them intend to stay though. Almost all of the migrants clearly express the intention to move onwards to Saudi Arabia.

The current political crisis and nationwide protests in Ethiopia, may contribute to the increased flows. Most of the Ethiopian migrants identify themselves as ethnic Oromo, who reports cases of arbitrary arrests, detention, torture and killings at the hand of government officials in response to the ongoing student protests or suspected involvement in the Oromo Liberation Front. Further, in recent months almost all Ethiopian arrivals on Yemen cited the drought in parts of Ethiopia as a reason for migration, which may have contributed to the increased flows as well.

Migrant flows in and out of Yemen

Due to the conflict in Yemen, more than 180,000 migrants and refugees have fled Yemen to neighbouring countries. Half of them have fled to Oman and Saudi Arabia, while the other half have fled to countries on the Horn of Africa (Djibouti, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan), resulting in a bi-directional flow between the Horn of Africa and Yemen. As Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, this creates a situation where almost 19 million people are left in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

In contrast to the previous liberal attitude towards migrants and refugees, the new regime in Yemen has adopted a policy of low tolerance to all migrants and has started to deport them. Furthermore, migrants are extremely vulnerable to being targeted during every phase of the journey – from the coast to the Saudi border – by people who will exploit migrants, kidnap them and keep them in isolated camps where they are tortured to elicit ransom payments.

Determination rewarded

While the breakdown of state functions has in theory made it easier for smugglers to move migrants from one hub to the next towards Saudi Arabia, heavy fighting along key smuggling routes from Yemen to Saudi Arabia also made it more difficult. The fact that migrants continue to flow into Yemen not only highlights the determination of these migrants; it also shows the ability of migrants smuggling networks to regroup, adapt and reorganise their business models despite a highly volatile security environment.

That so many Ethiopians still are making the crossing to Yemen, is a strong indication that most are in fact succeeding in reaching Saudi Arabia. It also shows that there are a sufficient number of jobs available for migrants in Saudi Arabia. Finally, it indicates that Saudi Arabia is once again tacitly allowing Ethiopian migrants back. There are no clear indications that the drivers of this migration will change any time soon. In fact, continued and rapid growth of the Ethiopian economy will initially lead to higher numbers of Ethiopian migrants leaving their country. If even the war in Yemen does not deter them from making the crossing to Yemen, it is likely that similar or even higher numbers of migrants and refugees from Ethiopia will continue to embark on these perilous journeys to Yemen and the Gulf States for years to come.