During January 2020, some 11,000 irregular migrants arrived in Yemen en route to jobs in the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council countries, especially Saudi Arabia. Almost all migrants come from the Horn of Africa countries of Ethiopia and Somalia.
The 11,000 arrivals in January was very much in line with average monthly arrivals in 2019.
Now, with COVID-19, migrant crossings to Yemen from the region have plunged, down almost 75 per cent since March, with the steepest decline seen in migrants arriving from Djibouti (96%) and Somalia (65%).
The COVID-19 pandemic's disruption of migration has brought change to the seven Migration Response Centres, or MRCs, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) maintains in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland. The seven MRCs are designed to provide a lifeline for irregular migrants in distress. Typically, this includes those without food, who are sick or who have been abandoned by smugglers.
"Extra measures such as obligatory hand washing and keeping a reasonable distance are currently in place when migrants approach the centre," explained Wria Rashid, head of the IOM Bosasso sub-office, referring to the MRC in Bosasso, Puntland.
Services such as basic health checkups and screening, as well as referrals for shelter and medical assistance are continuing, funded through the EU-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration in the Horn of Africa, one of the main programmes supporting MRCs.
Whereas before migrants visited MRCs for access to basic health services and migration information, since COVID-19 fewer are approaching MRCs for such services due to movement restrictions and fear of stigma.
At the MRC in Obock, Djibouti, IOM staff officials are noticing fewer children on the move, but no change in the type of migrant arriving - mostly young Ethiopians aged 18 to 35.
Numbers are down significantly at the MRC in Hargeisa, Somaliland. "Due to border closure and restrictions, numbers have sharply decreased with minimum registrations at the MRC in Hargeisa. Movements are still taking place, in harsher and riskier conditions," said Carlotta Panchetti, Migrant Protection and Assistance Officer with IOM Somalia.
Salemat is a typical case. She has had to abandon her hope of getting to the Middle East and blames the tightening of travel restrictions. When the 18-year-old Ethiopian was stranded in Bosasso on her way to Yemen, she sought assistance at the MRC.
IOM staff checked Salemat's temperature and gave her latex gloves, a mask and awareness material in Amharic, her mother tongue. "My greatest fear is to be infected with COVID-19," she explained. "But I can do nothing, I am just awaiting my predestination by Allah."
In Bosasso, MRC staff have bolstered outreach activities to informal settlements largely populated by migrants. IOM runs a hotline to let migrants phone in for on-the-spot information or to make appointments for arrange assisted voluntary return or access medical assistance. Between 20-30 calls are received each month; there was a slight uptick in May.