Yemenis risking their lives for just $50

Posted by Oxfam From life-saving emergency responses to life-changing development projects and campaigning

17th Aug 2012

As Yemen's hunger crisis worsens, families are resorting to some desperate measures to cope. The price of basic foodstuffs and fuel has increased and the UN says 10 million people are going hungry, with 5 million needing urgent assistance. 

Oxfam visited the northern governorate of Hajjah, close to the border with Saudi Arabia, to assess how families have been coping during the current hunger crisis and to plan our response to help the most vulnerable people. We found that many people were putting their lives at risk just so they could earn some money to feed their families.

Fatima Hussein Ali lives in a village in the northern Hajjah governorate where many households have lost family members because of their involvement in smuggling qat across the Saudi Arabian border close by. Qat is an evergreen plant grown in Yemen and other countries in Africa. Its leaves, chewed by almost all Yemeni men, have mildly narcotic properties and act as both a relaxant and stimulant. And it can fetch far higher prices in Saudi Arabia than in Yemen.

In Fatima's village, qat smuggling has had fatal consequences. Many have been killed or jailed, or have been severely wounded or hospitalised. One of Fatima's relatives was recently released from hospital and is staying with her in the family compound. His leg had to be amputated after a bad gun wound.

In the last decade, the Saudi authorities have spent billions of dollars trying to secure its 1,800km border with Yemen, including constructing a 75km iron fence and installing floodlights, cameras and electric wires, because of the large number of illegal immigrants, many of them Africans, trying to cross into the country.

While the journey is more perilous than before, that hasn't stopped desperate families from making the crossing to make some money. With high unemployment and limited job opportunities in Yemen, most people in Hajjah had relied on travelling to Saudi Arabia to find work and money.

"Before the closure of the border most people here worked in Saudi Arabia and sent money home to their families so they could buy food," Fatima told me.

"Many families were also involved in trade between the countries. After the border was closed things have been very difficult for us. It is very hard to find employment for the men. It means they can't earn enough money to buy food, which is getting more expensive all the time. So the only option we have is to smuggle qat across the border even though everybody knows it is very dangerous."

All the women surrounding us tell a similar story. "My husband was killed last month." or "My nephew went to jail last week."

We learn that boys as young as 12-13 are recruited for qat smuggling because they are smaller and can run fast.   Brokers behind the operation can pick and choose when they select people to cross the border, despite the dangers involved.

One run can typically earn someone about 10-11,000 Yemeni Riyals ($46-$50). We're told that, on average, people do two runs each month. However, some cross the border every week.

"One time my husband came home and was crying because he had not been selected for a qat run and he didn't know how he would get food for me and the children," another woman told us.

"He didn't know why he was not selected this time because he has been over the border several times before. He was afraid that he had done something to offend this man and would never be selected again. He was very, very worried."

All the women I spoke to said that the current economic crisis is most difficult for men and older boys because they are the ones who carry the responsibility for getting food and money for the family. Women and girls are more protected.

"We only stay home and receive," said one woman, a mother of three small children. "But our husbands are out there trying to find a way to earn money all the time." And often, that means risking their lives.

Yemen crisis

Oxfam in Yemen

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