African migrants in Yemen scapegoated for Coronavirus outbreak

By Vivian Yee and Tiksa Negery

The Yemeni militiamen rumbled up to the settlement of Al Ghar in the morning, firing their machine guns at the Ethiopian migrants caught in the middle of somebody else’s war. They shouted at the migrants: Take your coronavirus and leave the country or face death.

Fatima Mohammed’s baby, Naa’if, was screaming. She grabbed him and ran behind her husband as bullets streaked overhead.

“The sound of the bullets was like thunder that wouldn’t stop,” said Kedir Jenni, 30, an Ethiopian waiter who also fled Al Ghar, near the Saudi border in northern Yemen, on that morning in early April. “Men and women get shot next to you. You see them die and move on.”

This scene and others were recounted in phone interviews with a half-dozen migrants now in Saudi prisons. Their accounts could not be independently verified, but human rights groups have corroborated similar episodes.

The Houthis, the Iran-backed militia that controls most of northern Yemen, have driven thousands of migrants out of their territory at gunpoint over the past three months, blaming them for spreading the coronavirus, and dumped them in the desert without food or water.

Others were forced to the border with Saudi Arabia, the Houthis’ primary foe, only to be shot at by Saudi border guards and detained in prisons where they were beaten, given little food and forced to sleep on the same floor that they use as a toilet, migrants said in interviews from prison. Some have returned to abusive smugglers, determined to cross the border to find jobs in oil-rich Saudi Arabia.

A Houthi spokesman would not immediately comment on the allegations.

Five years of war between the Houthis and the Saudi-led coalition propping up Yemen’s government have ransacked the country, the poorest in the Middle East, starving and killing its people and smashing the door open to a mounting coronavirus outbreak.

Not only Yemeni civilians are caught in the crossfire. Humanitarian officials and researchers say the African migrant workers who traverse Yemen every year endure torture, rape, extortion, bombs and bullets in their desperation to get to Saudi Arabia. This spring, when the pandemic made them convenient scapegoats for Yemen’s troubles, they lost even that slender hope.

“COVID is just one tragedy inside so many other tragedies that these migrants are facing,” said Afrah Nasser, a Yemen researcher at Human Rights Watch.

More than 100,000 Ethiopians, Somalis and other East Africans board overstuffed smugglers’ boats across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden to Yemen every year, according to the United Nations, hoping to make their way north to support their families with jobs as domestic servants, animal herders or laborers in the wealthy Gulf countries whose economies depend on migrants.

The journey is murderous at every stage. At sea, smugglers withhold water and food and throw uncooperative passengers overboard; in Yemen, the migrants are at the mercy of traffickers who torture and sexually abuse them, demanding huge sums of money from their impoverished families to buy their freedom, according to the U.N., Human Rights Watch and other groups as well as interviews with migrants.

U.N. surveys show that most migrants do not know about the fighting in Yemen before they arrive, but crossfire and coalition airstrikes find them anyway. At border crossings, Saudi guards shoot and kill them, littering what the migrants call “slaughter valleys” with bodies, migrants and humanitarian officials say. Those who survive are often detained by Saudi authorities and deported.

A Saudi official, who asked not to be named, said allegations of mistreatment of migrants who cross the border illegally are not true and would be an affront to Saudi values.

Since borders clamped shut during the pandemic, the flow of migrants to Yemen has nearly evaporated, plummeting from 18,904 in May 2019 to 1,195 this May, according to the U.N. But at least 14,500 remain in the country. Many arrived in years past and stayed to scrape together a living or save up before trying to go on to Saudi Arabia.

Mohammed, 23, said she left Kemise, Ethiopia, after a divorce two years ago, hoping to earn enough as a maid in Saudi Arabia to support her widowed mother and two children back home. The smuggler who brought her to Yemen beat her repeatedly, threatening to kill her unless her family sent money.

When she could not pay, Mohammed said, she was sold to another smuggler who put her to work at a shisha house in Al Ghar, where the owner forced her to have sex with her customers.

Al Ghar was where she met her current husband. They made a living selling food to other migrants from under a plastic tent. She was making breakfast there when the Houthis arrived.

Jenni, who was working at a hotel in Al Ghar, was the only one of a group of friends from his Ethiopian hometown, Harage, to have made it that far. He and about 270 others had crammed into a small boat from the Somali coast, forbidden to move, eat or drink for the two-day journey to Yemen. When two friends asked for water, he said, smugglers stabbed them and threw them overboard.

As he watched them drown, Jenni said, “I cried silently, because I knew my fate would be the same if they heard me.”

When the Houthis stormed into town in April, Jenni said, he fled in his flip-flops, shoving $1,300 — all his savings — into his underwear.

Some of the migrants who ran from Al Ghar toward Saudi Arabia on April 8 estimated that the Houthis shot and killed at least 250 migrants that day. Another migrant, Ali Mohammed, 28, who recounted being chased off a farm in nearby Al Haydan, said only 57 of the 200 Ethiopians with him survived.

Authorities on both sides of the war have long found it easy to stigmatize African migrants as carriers of disease — first cholera and now the coronavirus, which is consuming what remains of Yemen’s health care system. Although rumors of sick residents had been circulating for some time, the first person the Houthis confirmed had died from coronavirus in Yemen, in early May, was a Somali man.

“This kind of stigmatization on migrants is life-threatening,” said Mohammed Abdiker, the East and Horn of Africa director for the International Organization for Migration. Some migrants had been harassed for trying to get water or food, he added, and others blocked from getting medical care.

All spring, the Houthis have done little to curb the coronavirus, denying reports of mass deaths in their territory. Instead, humanitarian officials, local security officials and residents say, the Houthis have used it as an excuse to expel unwanted migrants, mostly Ethiopians, driving them toward the Saudi border or rounding up truckloads of people to dump outside Houthi land.

The IOM estimates the northern authorities have arrested 1,500 migrants and relocated them to southern Yemen over the past two months. Thousands are marooned in the southern port city of Aden, where, according to the organization, about 4,000 are living on the street, struggling to get food or water.

Migrants meet just as harsh a fate at the Saudi border. At one point in April, humanitarian officials estimate, the Houthis left more than 20,000 migrants — mostly Ethiopians, many of them women — stranded in the “slaughter valleys” along the border. About 7,000 are believed to be there now. There is little food, water or aid. The number of dead is unknown.

Fatima Mohammed, Jenni and the other Ethiopians reached the Saudi border after three hours’ running, only to be shot at by Saudi guards, they said. Fatima Mohammed took cover under a large rock until the Houthis retreated the next morning, while Jenni hid in a wooded area.

Arriving at the border from Al Haydan, Ali Mohammed and six others managed to escape the bullets by hiding under a rock, but the remaining 50 in their group were killed.

A half-dozen migrants interviewed by phone from prisons in Saudi Arabia said Saudi police stripped the men to their underwear and took the women’s bags. They hit Jenni in the chest with the butt of a gun and forced him to hand over his money, he said: Four years of savings, gone.

Then they were driven to Saudi prisons, husbands separated from wives and children.

In phone interviews from prison this month, Ethiopians said they received nothing to eat but a few biscuits or a piece of bread and a small portion of rice each day. The bare concrete floor was both toilet and bed. They said they cleaned it as best they could before sleeping.

Imprisoned in the Saudi city of Jeddah, Fatima Mohammed could only watch her baby shrivel.

“I’m worried he’ll die in my hands one day,” she said. “We are human but poor. I want to go home and die on my soil.” She will probably get her wish.

Saudi Arabia has deported about 300,000 Ethiopians in the last two years for being in the kingdom illegally, according to humanitarian officials.

But for the migrants, going home means giving up. “I promised my six younger brothers and sisters I would go to Saudi Arabia to find a job and send them to school,” said Jenni. “But it only turned out to be a wild dream.”

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