Saleh Saeed Nasser has been patrolling Yemen’s coastline for 15 years. For most of his career, he’s seen migrants arrive on the pristine shores of Shabwa province from the Horn of Africa.
But in recent years, as his country's three-year civil war has brought on terrorism and the world's worst humanitarian crisis, something counterintuitive has started happening: More migrants from Africa are rushing to shore and overwhelming the coastline he patrols as a member of the country’s Coast Guard. More than 87,000 migrants arrived last year alone.
Now, Saleh says he needs 2,000 men to properly police this stretch of Yemen’s vast coastline. He only has 185.
"The government is busy with bigger issues — resources are scarce,” he said.
Yemen is locked in the middle of a conflict — proxy battle between Iranian-backed Houthis and a Saudi-backed coalition— that has thrown 20 million people into a sprawling humanitarian crisis. Nearly 10,000 people have been killed and 53,000 more wounded in the conflict, according to the United Nations, though many believe the figures are much higher.
Despite this grim reality, African migrants are fleeing crises at home in search of employment and opportunity in Saudi Arabia, and are hoping to pass through Yemen’s war zone to get there. VICE News witnessed hundreds of migrants starting their long walk from the shores of Bi’r Ali in south-east Yemen to the Saudi border.
Some migrants we spoke to didn’t even know Yemen was in the midst of a war, and others said they were willing to take their chances here anyway. “We were suffering back at home. There is misery and violence in Somalia,” Khadija said. “It’s expensive to go to Libya and it’s far. I’ll get out of here and head to Saudi Arabia. Then I’ll find a job.”
But this influx is overwhelming a country already on its knees, and creating another crisis of its own: a thriving criminal human trafficking industry and the abandonment of basic human rights.
“Unabated conflict, deteriorating economic conditions and now increasing criminality are exposing people to harm and exploitation,” William Spindler of the U.N.’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, warned on Tuesday.
Rights watchdogs are particularly alarmed by Yemen’s migrant detention facilities, which they say are being run with no regard for international standards. In a report released Tuesday, Human Rights Watch accused the coalition-backed government of overseeing the rape, torture and execution of African migrants in these detention facilities.
“Guards at the migrant detention center in Aden have brutally beaten men, raped women and boys, and sent hundreds out to sea in overloaded boats,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch.
“They torture us every day.”
VICE News visited the large coalition-backed, government-run migrant detention facility at the center of HRW’s report. There, hundreds of migrants were held in one single shed, with little room to move.
VICE News spoke with one man who said he and fellow detainees had “been locked in here for two months.”
“They torture us every day,” the man, who withheld his name for concerns over his safety, said. “They enter with guns and punch us, without reason. Until we’re bleeding. And we are sold here — You know about this? We’re sold.”
Khaled Alwani, the man overseeing the center, openly admitted that he relied on smugglers to return the men, women, and children migrants across the Gulf of Aden to Djibouti, where many of them travelled from. He said he had little choice. “If I wait until the government comes to deport them [legally], then the numbers here — you’ll get 2,000 to 3,000 people.“
“I ran from danger at home just to arrive to another war.”
Many people VICE News spoke to offered a similar explanation for their actions, but HRW’s Frelick said that’s hardly an excuse.
“The crisis in Yemen provides zero justification for this cruelty and brutality, and the Yemeni government should put a stop to it and hold those responsible to account,” he said.
Alwani was fired from his post days after VICE News brought its findings to Yemen’s Interior Minister, Ahmed al-Misri. He said authorities would shutter the overflowing facility and transport migrants to a new center in Ras al-Arah, but Human Rights Watch says this location is home to one of Yemen's largest smuggling hubs.
For many migrants, hope that a better life awaits across the way in Saudi Arabia is no longer enough to keep them here. “I ran from danger at home just to arrive to another war,” Khalid Omar said before boarding a ferry back to Somalia. “I don’t like it here, and I don’t want to die here.”
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