Stranded Migrants Arrive in Ethiopia from Yemen on First Return Flight since Start of COVID-19 Pandemic

Today, a flight carrying 140 stranded migrants departed from Aden International Airport for Addis Ababa. This was the first flight to Ethiopia from Yemen under the International Organization for Migration (IOM)’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program since the COVID-19 global pandemic was declared.

“This flight is a vital lifeline for migrants who have been stranded for months on end in unsafe conditions,” said António Vitorino, IOM Director General. “In the coming months, we hope to see more migrants able to safely go home to their loved ones in this way.”

Despite a reduction in the number of migrants arriving in Yemen — from 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020 — the dangers they face have drastically increased over the past year. Unable to continue across Yemen to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), many stranded migrants lack shelter, water and food. Migrants also have been at increasing risk of experiencing xenophobia, exploitation and detention over the last year.

“I have a family to provide for in Ethiopia so I left to find work,” said Mohammed, a 25-year-old man travelling on the return flight.

“I came to Yemen to make it to Saudi Arabia, but I was not successful. I can’t describe my situation here, as it has been very difficult. I have been homeless and poor. I am happy to be going home but I have nothing to bring back to my family. I will never leave again,” he added.

Transiting through Yemen was already a perilous undertaking even before COVID-19. Migrants first travel through the scorching deserts of the Horn of Africa and then cross the Gulf of Aden in boats so cramped that passengers often die of asphyxiation.

In Yemen, they are exposed to kidnapping, torture and abuse, while navigating a deadly conflict. While men comprise the majority of people travelling on this route, women and children remain the most vulnerable.

Since the start of the pandemic, IOM’s Displacement Tracking Matrix reports that at least 9,000 people have become desperate enough to put their lives back in the hands of smugglers to return to the Horn of Africa on dangerous boat journeys.  

Smuggling networks that operate along this route across the Gulf sometimes force migrants off overcrowded boats. Earlier this month, IOM reported that 20 migrants lost their lives in such an incident.

Since 2020, IOM teams in Aden registered over 6,000 migrants expressing a wish to return to Ethiopia. In December, the Government of Ethiopia visited the ancient coastal city and verified the nationality of 1,100 people, the first step of the voluntary returns process. The remaining migrants from this group are expected to travel in coming weeks. Additionally, thousands of other migrants remain stranded elsewhere in Yemen, including Ma’rib, where IOM hopes to extend its returns efforts soon.

“I am thankful to the governments of Yemen and Ethiopia for working with each other to help this group of migrants,” added Director General Vitorino.

“The recent tragedy in the Sana’a holding facility highlighted the vulnerability of migrants in Yemen and underlined the importance of acting to protect them.”

Prior to departure, IOM carries out medical and protection screenings to ensure that returnees are fit to travel, while those with special needs are identified and supported. The Organization also provides clothing and hygiene items to those in need.

In coordination with the Ethiopian government, IOM supports the government-run COVID-19 quarantine facility set up to accommodate the returnees in Addis Ababa and provides cash assistance, essential items and onward transportation assistance to home communities. The Organization also supports family tracing and the reunification of unaccompanied migrant children.

Across the Horn of Africa and Yemen, IOM provides life-saving support to migrants through health care, food, water and other assistance.

Today’s return flight from Aden to Addis Ababa is funded by the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM), the humanitarian bureau of the U.S. State Department. Post-arrival assistance in Addis Ababa is supported by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) and PRM.

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