Thousands of Ethiopian migrants kidnapped, tortured, raped in Yemen-report

Ethiopia Migrants Yemen
November 3, 2012

Kidnapping has become increasingly common in Yemen, with the majority of respondents who arrived in the last 18 months saying they were held for ransom after disembarking from smugglers boats, said the report from RMMS, working to help migrants in the Horn of Africa and across the Gulf of Aden.

 “If money [was] sent from our friends or relatives, we would be released and be free. If not, they would beat us to death,” one Ethiopian migrant told the researchers who interviewed some 130 individuals and groups in Yemen in May and June 2012. “Our group was 35 at first, but three of our friends died due to the beating.”

On average, migrants and their relatives pay the criminal gangs $100 to $300 to secure their release and prevent further torture, the report said.


Common forms of torture by kidnappers include gouging out eyes, pulling out teeth, hammering nails through hands and feet, severe beatings causing multiple fractures, and dripping melted plastic or stubbing out cigarettes on to skin, the report said.

A 15-year-old Ethiopian boy who arrived by boat on the Yemeni coast in February 2012 told researchers: “They tied a rope round my legs and hung me upside down and beat me almost to death for three days.”

“I was made to watch an Ethiopian woman being raped and an Ethiopian baby about one-year-old being killed.”

A 16-year-old girl said she was gang raped for six months before escaping.

Women are often separated from men and it is unclear what happens to them.

“They set fire to a plastic water bottle and they put it on my hand,” one Ethiopian man captured by gangsters on arrival in Yemen told researchers.

“After that, they take my wife and I don’t know where she is now.”

Based on interviews with Yemenis and Ethiopian migrants, the report speculates that such women “may be sold to Saudi Arabia families as virtual ‘slave’ domestic workers while others are used in clandestine sexual exploitation networks.”

“Trafficking of women appears to be a very serious reality for Ethiopian new arrivals… Few women who arrive on the shore are seen again.”


The migrants leave Ethiopia hoping to find work in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The most destitute walk for weeks to reach the coast, with little access to food, water or shelter. Others are smuggled in container trucks, packed to the point of suffocation.

They pay smugglers to take them by boat from Djibouti and Somalia to war-torn Yemen, which offers a gateway better paid jobs in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemen’s borders are poorly patrolled due to ongoing conflict in the country.

On the sea crossing, smugglers often beat the migrants, rape women and throw people overboard if they are sick or the boat is overloaded.

Those who make it ashore and escape the kidnappers often end up working in Yemen, trying to raise money for the next leg of their journey. The men generally work on farms producing the narcotic stimulant qat, while women earn money as cleaners and, less often, sex workers.

Reports from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) say that some 12,000 predominantly Ethiopian migrants, many in a desperate state, were sleeping rough in the streets of Haradh, a northern Yemeni city bordering Saudi Arabia. The charity has paid for over 9,000 stranded migrants to return home over the last two years.   

RMMS believes that the situation is set to worsen.

“Unless the rule of law is applied and the apparent culture of impunity ends, there seems little to stop the increase of criminality against migrants,” the report concludes.

Economic migrants fall largely outside the protection of refugee law and have little access to humanitarian aid.