The people smuggler spreads his arms wide over nine oblong piles of grey rocks, each representing one dead migrant. A tenth hole waits to be filled. “I buried them here myself,” Ahmed al-Awlaqi says proudly.
The rock towers surround forlorn, makeshift graves, which are linked by strings of brightly patterned garbage. This is where al-Awlaqi says he buried 70 of the thousands of people he has brought to the southern Yemeni province of Shabwa.
Al-Awlaqi insists those he buried here drowned on their way to Yemen. Others blame the deaths mostly on fighting, or on poor conditions in the buildings where smugglers like al-Awlaqi house them. Either way, the eerily silent desert valley 10 kilometres outside Ataq, Shabwa’s provincial capital, is not the final stop the graves’ occupants had hoped for.
Nearly six years into Yemen’s war, migrants continue to arrive in the country, although numbers are significantly lower in 2020 thanks to COVID-19-related border restrictions. According to the UN’s migration agency, IOM, just over 35,000 migrants have made it to Yemen so far this year, down from 138,000 in 2019.
Most hope to continue north through Yemen, eventually crossing the border into Saudi Arabia where there has long been plentiful work for day labourers.
For many right now, though, Ataq is where the journey ends. The road north passes multiple front lines and is often closed due to clashes. This year, COVID-19 has made it even more difficult to continue onwards. Life has become a waiting game: People can’t complete their journeys, but they also can’t afford to go back home, even if they would consider it.
The route to Ataq from Ethiopia – where 85 percent of Yemen’s migrants are from (the rest are mostly Somalis) – is long, hard, and often dangerous.
Most people travel overland from Ethiopia to Bosaso, a port in northeastern Somalia. From there, they catch boats (the trips can take up to day) to Bir Ali, a village on Shabwa’s southern coast. Then it’s a two-day (non-stop) walk or – for those who can afford it – a five-hour drive, to Ataq.
All of this is usually only possible through smuggling networks, which add the risks of kidnapping and extortion to the harsh terrain and perilous sea crossings.
The other main route – crossing the Gulf of Aden from Djibouti into Yemen’s western Lahj province, then following the coast up to Saudi Arabia – has become less popular these days, says Saleh Mehdi, who works at STEPS, a local NGO that monitors migrant flows. This route requires passing through Hodeidah province, which has seen flare-ups in fighting between the Houthi rebels, who control the country’s north, and the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi and its allies, which run the south. The largely exiled government is backed by a Saudi Arabia- and United Arab Emirates-led coalition.
Given the added risks on the Hodeidah route, more people are now heading for Shabwa’s beaches.
Groups of half a dozen migrants slowly traipse along the sea road inland. The only items most are carrying are bags handed out by IOM and its partners, who wait on the beaches during certain hours to count arrivals. The black-and-white, string-pull shoulder sacks contain survival essentials: biscuits, water, a toothbrush, talcum powder to stop sores from the sweat, sandals, sanitary products for women, and contraception.
Despite the humanitarian crisis gripping their country, Yemenis – long used to trade and travel through the Horn of Africa – often leave out water and snacks on popular migration routes, or stop their cars to offer people lifts and breaks from the interminable march.
On the road to Ataq, mosques open their doors to welcome weary migrants with food and water.
Inside the city, outside a neon-lit building on the main road just after dawn, The New Humanitarian finds some 50 tired and hungry Ethiopian and Somali young men gathered in one of many restaurants in the area that offer free breakfasts to migrants.
For those stuck en route, Ataq has become something of a sanctuary – even if all that consists of is sleeping on the street, and getting a hot meal in the morning and the chance of day labour. It helps that Shabwa has remained a relatively peaceful province in the midst of a chaotic war.
“Of all the towns in Yemen, Ataq is the best,” says Mohammad Amin Bayan, an Ethiopian who has been in Yemen for four years. “They feed you here for very little or for free.”
After learning some Arabic, Bayan has found translation work with local organisations assisting Ethiopian migrants, who often find it hard to access services and jobs. Unlike many Somalis, the Ethiopians rarely speak Arabic.
Hafiz Ahmed, 20, has been in the city for three days, having walked the 200 kilometres from the coast, and after catching the boat across from Somalia with two school friends who travelled with him from his hometown of Harar, in eastern Ethiopia. The walk took him six days, with some breaks along the way.
Wolfing down piping hot fassoulieh – a bean stew freckled with fresh green chillies – out of a rusty pan, Ahmed describes the journey.
“On the boat, there was no sleep, no food, no water,” he says, staring down at the flatbread he is shredding distractedly between his fingers. “It took 24 hours to cross. We were sitting cross-legged, tightly packed in together, sitting on top of each other. I was scared I might die – that the boat would turn over and drown us.”
Ahmed has run out of money. He plans to stay in Ataq and work until he can earn enough to continue on. Even if that’s not possible, he borrowed money from family and neighbours to make the trip. Before he can go home, he must earn enough to repay them or face the shame of debt as well as that of failure. This is true of many of his fellow migrants.
Misled and disappointed
None of this is what Ahmed expected. He had been told by a friend who made it to Yemen before him that life would be better here than in Ethiopia. The reality is that the situation has worsened. Ahmed finds himself competing for work with Yemenis who fled other parts of the country for the stability of Shabwa. There aren’t enough jobs to go around.
“I dreamed about making money, about having a different life,” Ahmed tells TNH. “Now, all I can think of is that the road [north and on to Saudi Arabia] is closed, what will happen to me?”
Some migrants continue to arrive in Yemen knowing the risks, but others have no idea what they will face.
“Many of these people are coming from rural areas, haven’t completed school, and have no access to smartphones and the internet,” explains Olivia Headon, IOM’s spokesperson in Sana’a. That means they may be more likely to believe the rosy picture painted by the local smugglers who approach them, promising opportunities across the water.
Several aid agencies and NGOs run awareness campaigns at Bosaso port about the risks, but by that point on the migratory route it is usually too late for people who’ve already come so far.
The long journeys are aided by people like Ali Mangasha, originally from Ethiopia, who helps run the smuggling racket back home from Ataq. He has been working with al-Awlaqi since he made the journey to Yemen two years ago.
Mangasha insists he does not mislead people about the dangers and prospects of the trip. “I tell them there is a war here, and they shouldn’t come, but they want to come anyway,” he says. “If it wasn’t me helping them come, it would be someone else.”
While COVID-19 has made it more difficult to take these risky journeys, there’s concern that the conflict in Ethiopia’s Tigray region could see more people attempt to pass through Yemen, although it’s unlikely to happen straight away.
“Usually in the immediate time frame of a conflict, we see most people trying to flee to the closest safe place, which is Sudan,” says Headon. “But instability affects the economy and society, which then affects whether someone wants to migrate for economic reasons.”
‘It’s no use staying here’
It’s hard to know exactly how many migrants are in Yemen as a whole, let alone in specific cities or provinces. Local charities like STEPS put the number in Shabwa at around 2,000, with around 5,000 in Aden and 4,000 in nearby Marib. IOM says there are about 14,500 migrants trapped in the country, but the real number may be much larger.
The relatively low number in Shabwa may be one reason the local population – in Shabwa as a whole, and in Ataq specifically – appears less bothered by their presence. But as Yemen’s economy continues its downward spiral complete with a massive currency crash – and as donors are less willing to fund humanitarian programmes in the country – this could change.
It’s becoming harder than ever for Yemenis to make enough money to eat, and for migrants to earn enough to keep moving. In early December, the Yemeni riyal hit an all-time low in the south of 920 to the US dollar.
“The daily cash jobs they can find aren’t reliable [or] long-term, and won’t support them in going on with their journey,” explains Sagal Abas, a researcher in Aden who studies migrant communities. “Now, with the dollar, it’s even worse. This money they earn is worth nothing; it won’t even buy them a place to stay for the night.”
In spite of the kindness they say they have received in Ataq, many migrants – faced with an endless wait for the northern border to open – say they now want to go home.
Abdullah Kamal, 27, has been in limbo since arriving in Yemen two years ago. He has tried to reach Saudi Arabia twice. Both times the road has been cut by fighting and he has been forced to turn back.
Despite having found work as a cleaner in a restaurant, earning 40,000 Yemeni riyals (about $45) a month, he says he now wants to go back to Ethiopia. “Enough,” he says. “It’s no use staying here and earning so little money. I want to go back to my country. That’s all I’m thinking about now.”
Those who try to go on to Saudi Arabia risk being caught and deported by border guards. The journey also requires passing through Houthi territory, where, if caught, they could be jailed and, according to several migrants TNH spoke to, forced to pay a 1,000 Saudi riyal fine for their release.
And a fine is far from the worst-case scenario. Human Rights Watch reports that in April Houthi rebels expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants into Saudi Arabia, where some were shot and killed by border guards, and others were held in “abusive and unsanitary” facilities.
Another possible way out is through the southern city of Aden, where IOM has been attempting to organise passages home for Ethiopian migrants. But Headon says the last time a repatriation flight was allowed to land there was in March – the Ethiopian government, wary of its limited quarantine capacity, hasn’t agreed to any more.
IOM still hopes a group capped at 1,200 will soon be allowed to fly back, and more than 2,600 migrants have registered to return to Ethiopia from Aden. Local IOM staff suspect there are up to 10,000 more across Aden and Marib who need help with repatriation. Whether they will be able to leave remains such an open question that IOM hasn’t even advertised the option of flying out of Aden to migrants across the country yet.
In the meantime, Ahmed and Kamal, and many other migrants in Shabwa and elsewhere in Yemen, make money however they can, sleep rough, and hope for the chance to move on.
TNH used transportation and research support provided by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies.