Instability in the Middle East and Central Asia has led to a mass exodus over the last year, with Europe receiving over 1.3 million asylum claims in 2015. The overwhelming majority of refugees and asylum seekers come from Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq but one country currently engulfed in war doesn’t even figure in the top 10 for refugees entering the EU — Yemen.
Yemen has a population of over 26 million and is the Middle East’s poorest country. The war has come under scrutiny by the international community after allegations the Saudi-led bombing campaign indiscriminately hit civilian areas. Conservative estimates say that around half of the 6,000 people killed are civilians. The Saudis are also enforcing a naval blockade and deployed ground troops to oppose the Houthi rebels — a group of Zaidi Shia’s who oppose the weak central government and have accumulated large swathes of territory before the Saudi intervention.
Yemen’s war has displaced around 2.4 million Yemenis according to UNHCR, most of whom are internally displaced. A further 170,000 people have fled the country, though most are foreigners. Instead of heading to Europe though, Yemenis are going to Djibouti, Somalia, Sudan, and Ethiopia, Reuters reports. Many have also fled to neighboring Oman and some even to Saudi Arabia, the country that is bombing them.
The lack of refugees into Europe is also likely to be one of the reasons behind the international community’s relative apathy toward the conflict there. There’s also an irony to the indifference surrounding Yemen’s refugees considering its history of receiving asylum seekers.
“Although Yemen is the poorest of the Gulf countries, it stands out in the region for its
generosity towards refugees,” UNHCR’s monthly factsheet for December 2015 says. “It is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.”
Part of the reason why Yemenis aren’t fleeing the country in high numbers is down to geography. Yemen is “penned in by ocean and desert, with only Saudi Arabia and Oman as direct neighbors, Yemenis have no easy outlets – although Riyadh now allows those already in the kingdom to stay,” Reuters reported Wednesday. “Flights out are irregular at best. Former havens such as Jordan now demand visas and set tough conditions.”
“People do not really have the courage or means and resources to do it,” Mogib Abdullah, a Yemeni spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, told Reuters. “I think they will just have to live with the realities they have. They are trapped and they will continue to be trapped, until the warring parties acknowledge that Yemenis deserve a better life at peace in their own country.”
One of the most traversed paths out of the country is through perilous sea voyages — though instead of taking a rickety ship into Europe, boats departing Yemen often end up in Djibouti.
“It’s very dangerous, so I think it’s better for me to die in my home than to die far away,” Kholood al-Absi, a 27-year old Yemeni, told Reuters.