Smuggling Migrants from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia

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This report examines the smuggling migrants networks facilitating irregular migration from the Horn of Africa to countries in the Arabian Peninsula, also referred to as the Gulf. In addition to analyzing the structure and modus operandi of migrant smuggling networks, the author considers the extent to which these networks are involved in other forms of organized criminal activity, such as arms and narcotics trafficking. The report concludes with recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders operating in the Horn of Africa and Yemen

Although it receives far less media and policy attention, the number of irregular migrants travelling from the Horn of Africa to Yemen and Saudi Arabia dwarfs the number migrating from the Horn of Africa toward Europe.

Despite an ongoing conflict and humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, a vigorous kidnapping and torture-for-ransom industry along major routes, and threats of deportation by Yemeni and Saudi authorities, migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia continue to travel to Yemen in hopes of reaching labor markets in the Gulf.

Ethiopian and Somali migrants most frequently cited prices between US$100 and US$250 for boat crossings to Yemen. Conservative estimates, therefore, placed revenues generated by migrant smuggling from Somalia to Yemen in the range of US$10 million in 2016. Estimates based on research carried out for this report suggest that while the number of irregular migrants traveling from the Horn of Africa to Yemen is likely to be smaller in 2017 than the record number in 2016, revenues from migrant smuggling along this route are still in the millions of dollars.

Estimating revenues from migrant smuggling routes within Yemen and on to Saudi Arabia is considerably more difficult. Unlike in Djibouti and Somalia, where the general routes have remained consistent for several years, migrants moving irregularly through Yemen are forced to take routes that are constantly changing due to the ongoing conflict. Similarly, prices paid for passage through Yemen, as well as for the crossing into Saudi Arabia, are constantly in flux. This price volatility, combined with the fact that there are few reliable figures available to estimate how many migrants pass through Yemen into Saudi Arabia (as opposed to those who stay in Yemen to work), makes it hard to estimate the size of the migrant smuggling industry. That said, since migrants pay smugglers several times during their journey, and the most recent information collected indicates that the cost of crossing into Saudi Arabia is around US$800, revenues from migrant smuggling in Yemen are easily several million US dollars per year.

Smuggling through Somaliland and Puntland

Two Ethiopian migrants making the journey from Hargeisa to Burco on foot.

Migrant smuggling through Somaliland and Puntland follows a fairly uniform route. The structure and modus operandi of migrant smuggling networks operating in Somaliland and Puntland are shaped by formal and informal political and security arrangements within both territories.

For irregular migrants from Ethiopia, the journey to Yemen through Somaliland begins with travel to the town of Wajale on the Ethiopia–Somaliland border. There, migrants who have already made arrangements (either in person or by text or phone) meet their interlocutor, who they may have met previously or may have been instructed to contact upon arrival. Other migrants arrive in Wajale without having made prior arrangements. From Wajale, Ethiopian smugglers, often referred to as agents or brokers, arrange the trip across the border into Somaliland (sometimes avoiding detection by border authorities, but more commonly paying officials at the border). Migrants are transported through Somaliland and onward through Puntland to the city of Bosaso, from where boats depart for Yemen.

The first stop after crossing the border is Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland. There, some migrants choose to continue on foot, without the services of a smuggler. These migrants often seek short-term employment in various towns and cities in order to fund subsequent phases of their journey. The Global Initiative spoke with two Ethiopian migrants, for example, who after paying a smuggler to facilitate the initial border crossing and bring them to Hargeisa, then chose to walk for several days until they reached Burco, where they intended to work as car-washers or cleaners until they had enough money to continue to Bosaso, where they intended to work again until they could pay smugglers to take them to Yemen. Both of these migrants had been to Saudi Arabia before, and the Global Initiative encountered them along a remote path on which there is no checkpoint or state presence, indicating that they knew which routes to take to avoid detection.

However, the vast majority of Ethiopian migrants make arrangements in Wajale to be transported through Somaliland and Puntland to Bosaso. Trying to transit both regions without a smuggler is fraught with legal and cultural barriers. Migrants who enter Somaliland and Puntland irregularly without the services of a smuggler risk being arrested by local authorities. Even if they avoid arrest, they have to navigate local political and security dynamics. For example, certain clan-based communities in Puntland are largely self-governing and provide their own security, and are sceptical of outsiders, particularly young men, trying to pass through the territories under their de facto control.

Smugglers have established relationships, and in some cases financial agreements, with these groups and are able to ensure passage without incident. Interviews with Ethiopian migrants and smugglers in Somaliland and Puntland indicated that irregular transit from Wajale to Bosaso and on to Yemen typically costs between US$300 and US$450, depending on the agent and the arrangement. Factors such as time of year, number of migrants waiting to depart, delays due to smuggling networks renegotiating their own internal arrangements, and the extent to which migrants are moving continuously without interruption from Wajale to Bosaso, were all cited as reasons for prices differences.

According to smugglers and government officials in Somaliland and Puntland, before 2013, Ethiopian migrants paid as little as US$150 for transport from Wajale to Bosaso, and prices were relatively fixed and required little negotiation. They attributed the increase in prices to modest efforts to limit irregular migration, which have raised the operating costs of smuggling, as well as to increased collusion between smugglers and local law enforcement authorities, which has reduced competition and limited the smuggling market to actors who have the requisite connections with the right government officials and local leaders.

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