Friday, 3 December 2010

Migrant misery at Yemeni-Saudi border

A Saudi border guard looking into Yemen

Thirty migrants stranded on Yemen's border with Saudi Arabia have died in recent weeks, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Thousands of migrants are stranded in the Yemeni border town of Haradh, either still attempting to cross the border into Saudi Arabia, or having been deported out of the country and left at Harahdh with nothing more than the clothes on their back.

Most of the migrants are from Ethiopia, Somalia or Sudan, and have undertaken the long and dangerous journey across the Gulf of Aden, with the hope of settling in Saudi Arabia or other parts of the Middle East. Yemen is the major transit route for people from the Horn of Africa, and many of them are dehydrated, malnourished and in bad health by the time they reach Haradh.

Every day hundreds of illegal migrants are caught and sent back to Yemen, Saudi officials say. The Yemeni-Saudi border has historically been very porous. It was only officially demarcated in 2000 and until 2009 many villages dotted the border.

Since 2009, however, Saudi authorities have stepped up efforts to prevent unwanted border crossings, targetting not only migrants, but also drug smugglers and Yemen-based Al-Qa'ida opertives. Saudi authorities embarked on a multibillion dollar effort to strengthen the border. They evacuated dozens of villages straddling the border and built an elaborate defence network to keep intruders out.

Even with earthern berms, layers of barbed wire, floodlights and thermal cameras present, some still get through. “They adapt very quickly to every strategy we have,” Lt. Muhammad Qahtani, a Saudi border patrol veteran told the New York Times. Migrants wear their shoes backward to confuse trackers or strap sponges to their soles to prevent leaving footprints.

Migrants typically put up little resistence when caught, often too weak from the journey. “Some of them say, 'If you give me something to eat, I will go back,'" Qahtani says. Drug smugglers are a different story: many are heavily armed, and according to Qahtani will fight to the death when surrounded, knowing that drug traffickers are usually beheaded in Saudi Arabia.

The price of greater security in Saudi Arabia, however, is misery for the migrants. With no means of either continuing their journey or returning home, the migrants sleep out in the open, trying to survive on whatever scraps of food they can find.

The IOM works with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the UN to help the migrants, and have, since November this year, targeted 2,000 migrants in the area. Since 13th November, IOM have assisted 785 of the migrants to voluntarily return home after providing medical, shelter and food assistance, and they say that by early December, that number will have risen to over 1000.

We are seeing a dramatic increase in migrants needing help. Over the past week, the number of migrants being referred to IOM has jumped to about 76 a day,” says the IOM's operations officer in Haradh, Bill Lorenz.

The IOM has received funds from the UN's Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to help migrants. They have established a centre in Haradh where they can provide shelter and basic health services to migrants wanting to return to Ethiopia. But with political instability and economic hardship continuing in the Horn of Africa, more migrants will continue to arrive.

Sources: ReliefWeb, New York Times

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