July 14, 2020 / 1:03 PM / 21 days ago

Yemen starts forced transfers of Ethiopian migrants, IOM says

GENEVA (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of migrants, mostly Ethiopians, are stranded in Yemen and at least 14,500 have been rounded up and forcibly transferred internally amid fears migrants contribute to the spread of COVID-19, the U.N. migration agency said on Tuesday.

Thousands of Saudi-bound Ethiopian workers cross Yemen each month but restrictions aimed at curbing the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the war-ravaged country have cut arrivals.

But among those already there, thousands have been bussed or trucked to cities like Aden and Marib where they are now stuck, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

“It’s a very dire situation when you combine access (difficulties) and the circumstances in which they live – a mobile population in urban environments,” IOM spokesman Paul Dillon told journalists in Geneva. He declined to give specifics regarding who was responsible for the transfers.

An unknown number of the stranded migrants could be held in detention centres that had poor hygiene standards even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Dillon added. However, locals and charities were helping some of the migrants.

The United Nations says the virus is spreading unrestrained in a country with shattered health systems and inadequate testing capabilities after years of war, and that the actual number of cases is likely much higher than official reports.

The Saudi-backed Yemeni government based in the south has officially reported 1,504 infections and 424 deaths as of Monday. The Houthi movement, which controls most big urban centres, has not provided figures since May 16 when authorities said there were four cases, with one death.

One of the early cases in May was that of a Somali refugee which the IOM has previously said contributed to migrants being stigmatised as “transmitters of disease”.

Yemen last year detained Ethiopian migrants in open-air football stadiums and a military camp. Such migrants would typically go on to work as cleaners, drivers and labourers in Saudi Arabia.

Reporting by Emma Farge in Geneva and Ghaida Ghantous in Dubai; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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