The story of Yemen has been more bitter than sweet in recent years. A multinational proxy war that has become disguised as a civil war has landed the country into the illustrious label of “worst humanitarian crisis.” While many experts understand the deep-rooted complexity of the Yemeni disaster, few acknowledge the many equitable woes, such as human trafficking, that have emerged from the other larger issues. The numbers on human trafficking in Yemen are very unclear due to the lawlessness throughout the country but NGOs reported many Yemeni populations being at risk because of the armed conflict and economic conditions. Whether it be a migrant in search of work or a soldier fighting in the conflict, the voyage is dangerous and the process is unfair.
Human Trafficking and African Migrants
Saudi Arabia has the largest economy out of all the Arab states due to its large petroleum reserves. This attracts many migrants from east Africa, specifically Somalia and Ethiopia, who are searching for opportunities that are harder to come by in their own countries. In order to reach Saudi Arabia, they have to cross the Red Sea into Yemen and travel north to the border which requires a complex network of smugglers to organize travel and get them entry into the Saudi Arabian border. Approximately 138,000 people, mostly Ethiopians, crossed the Red Sea in 2019. However, those numbers reduced in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The conflict in Yemen has allowed these smugglers to thrive from the lawlessness. But the conflict adds an increased level of danger and those individuals who decide to make the trek across the Red Sea and through Yemen must put themselves at the mercy of a smuggler. Additionally, the fighting along the border, as well as road closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, have made it difficult to get into Saudi Arabia. As a result, many end up having to stay in Yemen with no money or communication with family back home.
Some migrants get close to reaching the Saudi Arabian border in Houthi-controlled northern Yemen but if Houthis catch them, they frequently have to remain in Yemen with very few ways of leaving. Migrants that Houthis catch experience arrest and must pay an “exit fee” for which they can then go back down south to the edge of Houthi control. At this point, they do not have money or work and thus become stuck in Yemen.
Some migrants face even worse fates if Houthis catch them. Upon arrival, many go to Yemeni detention centers where they wait for their family back home to send a ransom while they experience torture and abuse.
Human Trafficking and Soldier Recruitment
Internationally denounced, many Yemeni end up fighting in the ongoing conflict, with Saudi Arabia having a large role in the recruiting. Recruiters receive pay for each person they send to the Saudi Arabian border, but oftentimes those who undergo recruitment are young soldiers who live in tough circumstances making it easy for others to exploit them. The situation has received the description of “a trafficking of youth souls at the port, just like livestock.”
Recruits end up in terrible conditions and they have to fight to survive. Once they arrive at the recruitment camp, they can only leave if they obtain an injury or participate in a collective protest. Additionally, they can experience detention in prisons if they try to escape. At one point, Houthi forces bombed a prison with detainees that attempted to escape the fighting, resulting in the detainees’ deaths. For many, the only option for escape is to pay a smuggler. This dangerous cycle for a recruited soldier makes human trafficking in Yemen a lucrative business.
Actions to Stop Human Trafficking in Yemen
Because of the lack of control Yemen has over its own country due to the conflict, poor economy, lack of basic institutions and many other problems, it is not taking enough tangible steps to help curb the business of human trafficking. However, one small group battling the problem is the Yemen Organization for Combating Human Trafficking, which emerged in 2009.
Responses from the international community and the U.S. government are the most crucial in helping stop the problem. UNICEF published a paper focused on the issue and the policy proposals that it has determined would be the most effective. Those proposals focused on eliminating the supply and demand of the trafficking business as well as recommending governmental responses both regionally and around the world that would target families vulnerable to trafficking.
The Yemeni government repeatedly recognizes this as a problem and has made anti-trafficking law enforcement efforts but it is clear that it requires more attention. Until more international involvement with a focus on diplomatic steps to bring peace to Yemen emerges, human trafficking will thrive under the chaos. President Biden recently announced the U.S. would be ending support to Saudi Arabia for its offensive efforts in Yemen. One will have to wait and see whether that will have any significant impact on bringing peace to the country and curbing the demand for human trafficking. However, at least it is one positive stride in comparison to other approaches thus far.
– Stephen Blake Illes