After a Dream Trip Turned into Tragedy, Ethiopian Migrants Find Safe Passage to Home

Published Date: 
Sunday, August 15, 2021


Aden – Gamal came to Yemen with one goal in mind: to make a better life for himself. What he did not know was how difficult the journey would be. The smugglers had sold him a different story — an easy journey ending in a land of abundant opportunities.

“Every Young Ethiopian man wants to travel to Saudi because the money we can make is worth more than Ethiopian money,” said Gamal, explaining why he left his country two years ago.

Gamal, a stranded migrant in Aden waiting for his fight to go back home © IOM 2021/Majed Mohammed

Migrants bound for Yemen trek for days or even weeks through dangerous terrain in the Horn of Africa, and then cross the Gulf of Aden in cramped boats.

They then make their way on foot under the hot sun, attempting to continue north through Yemen to Sa'dah where they can cross the border into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to find opportunities with better income.

“I was surprised when I reached Yemen to find the passage to KSA was closed due to the war and COVID-19. The smuggler had told me he would take me to Saudi, and it would be easy trip,” explained Gamal.

The number of migrants travelling from the Horn of Africa to Yemen has been greatly reduced due to COVID-19 related movement restrictions, but some brave migrants continue to try.

“The sea journey took more than 10 hours. We were squatting, tightly packed together, and sitting on top of each other,” recalled Gamal about his journey.

“I spent more than two days without food or water,” He added.

Every phase of the journey to Yemen is dangerous. While travelling on these boats, an unknown number of migrants lose their lives due to asphyxiation or drowning.

Newly arrived migrants rest in the shade of a tree near the Yemeni coast IOM 2020/Majed Mohammed

Gamal was lucky to survive his journey, but upon arriving in Yemen, his suffering only increased. He first managed to make it more than 280 kilometres north to Sana’a, but eventually turned around.

“People were treating me in a very bad way, so I decided to come back to Aden. Here, I could not find any job where I could earn enough to survive. I slept on the street and under trees. The only way for me and many other migrants to eat is to wait outside restaurants and eat the leftovers,” explained Gamal.

“Before I knew about IOM’s programme, I wanted to go back to my country, but I didn’t know how,” he added.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) helps Ethiopian migrants like Gamal who are stranded in Yemen and wish to return home through its Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) programme.

Since the pandemic was declared in early 2020, IOM operated five VHR flights, starting in March 2021. The Organization aims to help many more stranded migrants return in the coming months.

Luckily, Gamal was on board the second VHR flight to Addis Ababa in April 2021.

The IOM protection team helps returning migrants prepare for their flight from Aden airport to Addis Ababa. ©IOM 2021/ Majed Mohammed

“I am very happy that I will go back soon. My entire family is waiting for me back there,” said Gamal before boarding the flight home last year.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, IOM estimates that at least 32,000 migrants are stranded across the country. The Organization has registered more than 6,000 migrants who wish to return home.

In December 2020, the Government of Ethiopia sent a delegation to Aden to verify an initial group of 1,100 Ethiopian migrants who wish to return. The first VHR flight took place in March 2021 after the pandemic hit, with the remaining expected to take place in the second half of 2021.

Additionally, thousands of other migrants remain stranded elsewhere in Yemen, including close to the conflict’s frontlines in Ma’rib, where IOM hopes to extend its return efforts soon.

Prior to departure, IOM carries out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel, while those with special needs are identified and supported. The Organization also provides clothing and hygiene items to those in need.

A member of the IOM team takes the temperature of a returning migrant before he enters the Aden airport © IOM 2021/Majed Mohammed

In coordination with the Ethiopian government, IOM supports the government-run COVID-19 quarantine facility set up to accommodate the returnees in Addis Ababa and provides cash assistance, essential items, and onward transportation assistance to home communities. The Organization also supports family tracing and the reunification of unaccompanied migrant children, as well as the provision of follow-up medical, psychosocial and psychiatric treatment based on the needs in Addis Ababa.

Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water, and other assistance.

The VHR programme is one of the priority areas for the Regional Migrant Response Plan 2021–2024 (MRP) for the Horn of Africa and Yemen, a USD 99 million appeal launched by IOM and 39 partners in March 2021. Through this programme, IOM contributes to the objectives of the MRP designed to address the dire humanitarian, human rights, safety and security challenges migrants in the region are facing.

Despite a reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Yemen — from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020 — the dangers they face have drastically increased over the past year. Unable to continue across Yemen to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, many stranded migrants lack shelter, water, and food. Migrants also have been at increased risk of experiencing xenophobia, exploitation, and detention over the last year.

This story was written by Majed Nadhem, IOM Yemen Communications Assistant.