Aden – “We stayed at sea for 28 hours with no food or water. Many of us were tired and sick from the trip and needed medicine,” explained Hassan, a Somali migrant, while recounting his journey to Yemen.
Most migrants travel to Yemen with hopes of reaching the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). These young people from Somalia and, more often, Ethiopia dream of a life where they and their families do more than just survive.
Smugglers and traffickers capitalize on these ambitions as well as the lack of opportunities at home. However, criminal gangs profiting off irregular movements fail to mention to young travelers the dangers of the route — possible death from dehydration, hunger and heat while walking through the Horn of Africa to the coast or suffocating on or drowning from crammed, unseaworthy vessels during the voyage across the Gulf of Aden.
And now, COVID-19 poses further risks to the reduced number of migrants still making this journey and to the migrants stranded throughout Yemen unable to return home.
To remain undetected by Yemeni authorities, smugglers often force migrants to jump from the boat around 150 to 250 metres from the coast to swim ashore; this is particularly the case for arrivals to Shabwah from Somalia. After arriving on land, migrants must usually walk around 300 kilometres in groups of 10-15 people to reach camps run by smugglers in Ataq, the capital of Shabwah governorate. From there, smugglers usually take the migrants to Marib or Rada’ in Al Bayda to work on khat farms and raise funds for the remainder of their journey to KSA.
Arriving at dawn, the migrants are exhausted, injured and sick from their journey so far and in desperate need of food, water and emergency health care. “When we stopped near the Yemeni shores, some people started shooting at us from the top of a mountain,” recalled Sultan, an Ethiopian migrant.
“The smugglers at the shore had a car, but they would only take those who have money in their possession and left the others behind,” he added.
Hassan and Sultan are some of the nearly 7,000 migrants that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) provided health assistance to on their arrival to Yemen in the first half of 2020. Most migrants arrive along the southern coast, particularly in Lahj, Shabwah and Hadramaut, where IOM’s Mobile Medical Teams operate.
The IOM Mobile Medical Team, supported by the Government of Finland, provides services to weary migrants along the Shabwah coast.
“The IOM Mobile Medical Clinic consists of a doctor, a doctor’s assistant, a nurse, a psychological counsellor and a translator. The clinic is an ambulance fully equipped with medicine and first aid kits. We also carry clothes, snacks and water,” said Dr Abdulraheem Al Mehdhar, the IOM Mobile Medical Clinic Coordinator in Shabwah.
Every morning, the mobile teams drive along the coastal route looking for new arrivals. When a team comes across a group of migrants, the team asks if anyone requires medical assistance. The team’s doctor then carries out examinations and distributes treatment and medicine as needed. Given the heat, the doctors often use whatever they can for shade like trees or large rocks.
The team also distributes light snacks, water and even clothes in some cases. One of the team registers the migrants’ details and gives them numbers so that the other mobile teams, both IOM and partners, know that this group has been assisted.
“Migrants also participate in on-the-spot health awareness sessions to learn about the most common diseases in Yemen, like cholera and COVID-19,” said Dr Fahd Sofi, an IOM Migration Health Physician.
Newly arrived migrants receive vital information about how to protect themselves from contracting COVID-19 through these awareness sessions. Yemen is struggling with widespread transmission of the virus.
“In some cases, the team also provides individual psychological support, especially for children and women, or refers migrants to a hospital if further care is needed. The team also provides women with dignity kits, including clothes and hygiene materials,” added Dr Sofi.
Around 90 per cent of the migrants coming to Yemen are Ethiopian nationals; the rest mostly come from Somalia. Throughout the country, IOM provides migrants with health and protection services as well as assistance to voluntarily return to their countries.
Since the beginning of COVID-19 outbreak, the numbers of migrants entering Yemen through its southern coastline has reduced significantly, in comparison with previous periods. However, for those still arriving, the risks are increasing, while access to essential services like health care are decreasing.
“When we arrived in Yemen, we were tired and started walking, but IOM found us and gave us snacks, water and clothes,” said Sultan.
“I want people to keep in mind that migrants are humans who are in desperate need of our help. It is their right as humans to receive health care and feel safe, just like any other person,” added Dr Al Mehdhar.
Since 2018, the IOM Mobile Medical Team in Shabwah supported by the Government of Finland,has provided assistance to nearly 26,600 migrants, of which 11,500 were provided with medical assistance, 13,800 with mental health and psychosocial support and 23 referred to public health facilities for further care.