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Daraj.Media/En: Climate Migrants in Africa: Harsh Realities in Yemen

Posted by: Berhane Habtemariam

Date: Monday, 22 January 2024

22 January 2024

Despite the war in Yemen since 2015, migration waves from the Horn of Africa have not ceased. The number of migrants arriving in Yemen far exceeds the number of undocumented migrants reaching Europe during the same period.

Climate fluctuations and environmental changes have left a profound impact and limited options for a significant number of inhabitants in the Horn of Africa, including 38-year-old Abdullah Salem. Severe droughts, heavy rains, and civil war in the Banadir region east of Mogadishu, Somalia, compelled him to seek alternative ways to sustain life. Salem discusses climate changes, saying: “We were accustomed to drought, but lately, the waves have become longer and more violent, and, in contrast, rainfall has increased, sometimes leading to floods that sweep through our fragile homes and farms.”

“My farm was everything to me, the only source of income for my family, but harsh weather threatened our crops and our way of life,” he adds with a deep sigh. 

These harsh climate shifts also forced 26-year-old Yunus Omar to leave his homeland in Somalia in search of a better life by migrating to Yemen, with the hope of eventually continuing his journey to Oman. Omar shares his story, saying: “We had a farm and agricultural equipment, but we lost everything due to recent floods. I used to live comfortably with my family, but everything ended, and the future seems bleaker, according to the discussions circulating in the media.”

The Horn of Africa is one of the most climate-vulnerable regions, experiencing rapid climate extremes, leading many to migrate due to deteriorating conditions and the loss of traditional livelihoods. 

The wealthy Arab Gulf states serve as an attractive destination and a primary goal for migrants seeking to improve their living conditions and find job opportunities amid economic stability. In this context, Yemen stands out as a transit bridge for African migrants stranded on their way to the Gulf region, seeking hope for a better life. 

Given Yemen’s proximity to the Horn of Africa and its location in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen becomes a necessary passage for many migrants. However, only a few succeed in reaching neighboring Gulf countries. The illegal journey across land borders is costly and perilous, with luck not favoring many, as reported by the International Organization for Migration(IOM) in 2022. Approximately 175,000 migrants heading to Saudi Arabia were displaced and returned to Ethiopia, Yemen, and Somalia. 

Those stumbling on this journey find themselves settling in a country that may not be better than their home country. Yemen may become the final destination for some, where no other options are available. For example, Abdullah Salem resides in the Bastaheen area, a camp for migrants west of Aden, Yemen. 

Interplay of Climate Change and Violence in the Horn of Africa

Yemen witnessed a significant increase in the number of migrants from the Horn of Africa during the first quarter of 2023 due to the intersection of internal instability with harsh climatic conditions. The total number of migrants reached 41,453, with Ethiopians constituting 78% compared to 22% from Somalia. 

Ethiopia has been greatly affected by the intersection of sectarian violence and severe drought, especially in the Tigray region, negatively impacting livelihoods and prompting many to migrate. In Somalia, civil war has led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands due to instability and environmental impacts such as droughts and floods. 

Analysts confirm a clear interplay between environmental and political variables pushing people towards migration. Experts suggest that a lack of basic resources like water can lead to local conflicts and displacement. The impact of climate change is expected to exacerbate resource scarcity, leading to local conflicts and increased migration in the future, particularly in the absence of adaptation policies in vulnerable communities. 

Assistant researcher Mosaed Aqlan, responsible for the water and environment file at the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, affirms the interconnectedness of climate change and conflicts, stating: “Climate change contributes to igniting conflicts over resources in various ways,” emphasizing that “drought and land degradation due to desertification and winds affect agriculture, increasing competition for land. Also, fish resources are affected by rising sea and ocean temperatures, exacerbating migration towards more resource-productive areas, leading to tensions with host communities.”

Despite the war in Yemen since 2015, migration waves from the Horn of Africa have not ceased. The number of migrants arriving in Yemen far exceeds the number of undocumented migrants reaching Europe during the same period. Since 2015, Ethiopia has recorded the highest percentage of migrants to Yemen due to worsening economic conditions, lack of job opportunities, and the impact of drought on the agricultural sector. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs indicates that many Ethiopians arriving in Yemen come from agricultural communities and face significant challenges due to drought conditions. 

Reports from the IOM indicate a continuous increase in the number of undocumented migrants from the Horn of Africa and the eastern part of the continent. In March 2023, approximately 20,000 migrants, mostly Ethiopians, arrived on the Yemeni coasts. 

Challenges are growing in Yemen with the increasing number of migrants amid difficult living conditions. This sometimes leads to tensions that can escalate into deadly clashes among migrants themselves, reflecting economic and social pressures. These clashes raise governmental and societal concerns about the potential transfer of ethnic and political conflicts from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, adding pressure on security and living conditions in the country. 

The Deadly Journey

The journey of migrants coming to Yemen begins with challenging obstacles and risks that sometimes threaten their lives, according to Salem, who recounts “difficult days between sailing and walking under the sun and winds, and a tough and unforgettable journey despite all these years, facing problems and accidents that caused injuries before finally ending up in Aden.”

Undocumented migrants start their journey to Yemen by land, primarily through Djibouti, eventually embarking on perilous boat journeys across the Gulf of Aden, reaching the southern coasts of Yemen. In contrast, fewer sail from the Somali coasts. This route, traversed by migrants from the Horn of Africa, is one of the world’s most crowded maritime migration paths. Smuggled minors are the most globally trafficked, representing about 20% of migrants, with many being smuggled without escorts. This route is referred to as the “killer migration route,” largely overlooked by the world. The estimated economy of migrant smuggling exceeds 47 million US dollars annually. 

Yunus Omar, who recalls the details of his horrifying journey, emphasizes the significant impact of unstable weather during his trip. The strong winds during the crowded boat crossing of the waterway almost caused the boat to capsize. He adds: “Drinking water ran out during the journey, and we suffered from dehydration. Unfortunately, some could not endure, especially minors who lost their lives.” 

Yemen and the Horn of Africa Facing Shared Climate Challenges

The Yemini and Horn of African regions share the challenges of climate change, unstable security pressures, and economic instability, resulting in negative impacts on the environment and daily life. In the Horn of Africa, the region experiences its worst drought wave in forty years, exacerbating the food security crisis and reducing livelihood opportunities. In Yemen, 2022 was classified as one of the driest years in the country’s history, causing destructive weather fluctuations such as heavy rains, floods, and hurricanes. 

Yemen has been affected by severe climatic phenomena, resulting in infrastructure destruction and threats to livelihoods. Floods in the second half of March caused harm to over 9,000 families, polluting drinking water and destroying sewage networks, creating an environment conducive to the spread of diseases. 

The similarity between Yemen and the Horn of Africa lies in the pressures that migrants face due to climate change. Abdullah Salem illustrates these challenges, saying: The situation in Yemen is also bad, especially in the orchard area where I live. There are no basic services available, and the area witnesses a growing spread of diseases, especially seasonal fevers,” he continues, “We face difficulty finding clean drinking water, as most water has become saline and unfit for consumption, and the summer heat has become unbearable.” 

This convergence of climate challenges and harsh living conditions vividly reflects the impact of climate change on individuals and communities in these two regions.

Climate Migrants Caught between Marginalization and Seeking Solutions

Data indicates a dire situation for African migrants in Yemen, with 48% lacking any shelter, living in challenging conditions. Seventeen percent reside in temporary locations, and 42% rely on seasonal work as a source of income. However, 35% lack any sources of income. 

It’s noteworthy that 56% of these migrants identify food assistance as their most critical and prioritized need, highlighting the significant extent of their suffering. This is echoed by Wajdi Ben Mohammed, an official at the IOM in Yemen, stating: “The majority of them live in difficult conditions and cannot access basic services that meet their needs, especially persons with disabilities, women, and children.” 

According to Ben Mohammed, the organization is implementing various programs and protection and health services, including response points and mobile health teams that go to find migrants and provide assistance to them.

The increasing challenges of climate migration from Africa pose a significant global challenge, according to the Secretary General of the World Meteorological Organization, Petteri Taalas. Taalas warns that climate conditions in Africa, especially in the northern and southern parts of the continent, will become more challenging, requiring specific strategies to address them. However, fragile countries lack support to access climate financing to enable them to adapt. For instance, according to an Oxfam report, Somalia faces genuine marginalization in international support for long-term development programs and livelihood improvement. Limited climate financing reaches the most vulnerable countries, receiving less than five times that of non-developing countries, and debt overshadows the context of funding, further compounding economic burdens. 

Naimira Najm, Director of the African Migration Observatory, points out that expected migration and displacement waves in Africa due to climate change constitute a mobile challenge threatening the continent. She urges the necessity of developing specific strategies to confront this challenge and securing the necessary funding to mitigate its destructive effects. 

As part of confronting these challenges, the historic Kampala Declaration on Migration, Environment, and Climate Change was announced at an international ministerial conference in Uganda in July 2022, disseminated to become a comprehensive framework across Africa. This declaration was endorsed at the first African Climate Summit in Nairobi last September. 

Effectively, this declaration is the first framework led by governments to address issues of mobility resulting from climate change, the foreseen needs and gaps, and the opportunities for human mobility due to climate change in Africa. 

Efforts by the Yemeni government are underway to reduce smuggling opportunities, as September saw a 63% decrease in the numbers of migrants compared to August of the previous year. This decrease is attributed to the ongoing military campaign on the coast of Lahij, which began in August and continued throughout September.

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