Yemen: Remittances to fall as workers return from Saudi Arabia

17 December, 2013
Nov 2013, Hajjah Governorate, Yemen: Yemeni migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia at Al Tuwal border point in Hajjah Governorate. The Government and aid organizations estimate that 400,000 workers will return to Yemen in the coming months. Credit: OCHA/Abdulelah Taqi
Nov 2013, Hajjah Governorate, Yemen: Yemeni migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia at Al Tuwal border point in Hajjah Governorate. The Government and aid organizations estimate that 400,000 workers will return to Yemen in the coming months. Credit: OCHA/Abdulelah Taqi

Mohamed Sheikh, 19, worked in a laundry in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for four years before returning to Yemen in early November. He is one of 400 people who have recently returned to the village of Hababah, Amran Governorate, in north-eastern Yemen.

“I was sending back about US$7,200 every year to support my family of nine,” he said. “But under the new laws, I needed more than $3,000 to sort out legal issues and regularize my stay in Saudi Arabia. I could not raise that amount. So I came back.”

Mohammed’s friend, Yahya Qaid, also a former laundry worker in Jeddah, has since found another job at a laundry in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. “I earn less than half of what I used to earn in Jeddah,” he said. “Already, my younger son has dropped out of school. My current income is not sufficient to cover the needs of my 11-member family.”

$1.4 billion each year in remittances

The two are among the 400,000 Yemeni migrant workers, who, according to the Yemeni Government and aid organizations, have been forced to return from Saudi Arabia since April, following a change to labour and immigration laws. Saudi Arabian officials say those being forced to return are illegal workers and the move is intended to ensure foreign workers regularize their stay.

About one million Yemenis are estimated to work in Saudi Arabia, providing an estimated $1.4 billion in remittances for their families back home. According to Government data, these remittances contribute 4.2 per cent of GDP. This is important for a country that is the poorest and least developed in the Middle East. An estimated 54 per cent of the population live below the poverty line, 43 per cent are food insecure and more than half of Yemen’s people lack access to safe water.

The return of thousands of workers will increase vulnerability among families dependent on these remittances, says the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In Hababah, home to more than 16,000 people, many families coped by encouraging their children to seek employment in Saudi Arabia.

Returning empty-handed

Many of the returnees are brought by bus to the Al Tuwal border point near Haradh, in Hajjah Governorate. Here, they are handed over by the Saudi Arabian authorities to Yemeni officials, who in turn arrange for them to return to their villages.

According to IOM, which monitors the returns at the border point, 75 per cent of the returnees that it interviewed had been sending up to $200 each month to their families. It is estimated that at least $5 million was lost in remittances in October and November alone.

“The fact that the families will not receive these remittances any more will have a major impact on them and the economy of their region,” said IOM’s Tereza Zakaria. “Most of them are returning to areas with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. The massive loss of income will inevitably exacerbate this situation.”

Most of the returnees were construction workers, farmers, vendors, shop keepers, carpenters and blacksmiths. About 35 per cent of them said they suffered physical abuse and their property was confiscated as they were expelled, forcing them to return home empty-handed. Many also returned to deplorable conditions and are themselves now in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.

Triggering a new humanitarian crisis

Between 3 and 7 November 2013, the number of returnees at Al Tuwal increased sharply as a moratorium on deportations that had been in place since July expired. More than 28,000 people returned during that period, according to IOM. Although the numbers have since decreased, the Government expects that a further 400,000 Yemenis will return in the coming months. IOM and its partners are at Al Tuwal where they are providing medical care, food, non-food items, water and sanitation to the returnees.

“The return of these workers will hit the poorest families hardest,” says Trond Jensen, head of OCHA in Yemen. “It will increase vulnerability and significantly hurt livelihoods. It could trigger a new humanitarian crisis for a country that is struggling to cope with many crises.”

In Yemen, more than half the population needs some form of humanitarian aid. The collapse of basic services in 2011-12, endemic food insecurity, destroyed or damaged livelihoods and under-development, along with displacement resulting from conflict, have combined to plunge the country into a humanitarian emergency which may persist into 2015. The return of migrant workers will likely worsen this vulnerability. The UN and its humanitarian partners have appealed for $571 million to assist 7.6 million people in Yemen in 2014.

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