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European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations

Rescuing migrant girls, a selfless humanitarian deed

Women sitting in a shelter from the shadow. In front a little boy looking into cardboard boxes.
© IOM Yemen, Haithm Abdulbaqi

Now in its 9th year, and despite conditions resembling a truce, the conflict in Yemen remains unabated. However, this has not deterred migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, from taking their chances crossing Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia, even if most of them never make it there.

Thousands of migrants get stuck close to the frontlines of the conflict. If they do make it to the border, they run a high risk of being maimed or killed and forced back into Yemen. The prospects are bleak enough for migrant boys and men, but a crueler fate often awaits the girls and women.

Salma* is an educated woman in Yemen, a country where women face ever more restrictions. She is a woman who returned home to teach and now helps migrants. As we approach World Humanitarian Day on 19 August, meet her and learn more about her work.

Salma is a true humanitarian hero. A hero not in the trivial way media sometimes portray and label people, but in the proper sense of the word: a person with noble qualities who shows great courage and empathy for others.

Saving girls and young women from the clutches of ruthless human traffickers requires courage, perseverance, and moral strength. Delicate as she may look, Salma possesses all these and many other qualities.

“Once they reach the shores of Yemen, the females are kidnapped by the smugglers who hold them against their will,” the mother-of-1 says.

“If they have money, they bring them by bus here [to Marib]. If they can’t pay, they travel on foot.”

Salma works for the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) as a protection officer in Marib, a city in central Yemen that has been on the frontlines of a war that has torn the country apart for the past 9 years.

IOM, a long-standing EU humanitarian partner, recently warned that a soaring number of migrants from the Horn of Africa find themselves in distress in the country. At the end of July 2023, more than 86,000 migrants had already crossed the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, approaching pre-pandemic levels.

Thanks to EU humanitarian funding, IOM can provide migrants in Yemen with aid, protection, and other services despite very challenging circumstances.

Many traffickers try to profit from the aid by keeping or selling it.

“I will tell the girls: open it, eat in front of me so that it won’t be sold, no one will take your food from you while I am here! Even the clothes: wear them now,” Salma says.

A woman, carrying a child in front of a shelter.
© European Union, 2023 (photographer: Anouk Delafortrie)

Salma works tirelessly to help the Ethiopian girls and women. Having grown up in Ethiopia’s Oromo region as the daughter of a Yemeni businessman, she speaks their language.

“They like me because I was the first one to start communicating with them. They just feel happy to talk, to be listened to, to express their needs.”

Teaming up for protection

Aansi* left her village in Ethiopia when she was 16 and arrived in Yemen in 2020, during the pandemic. Even before reaching the shore, she was ‘sold’ to a smuggler by her male companions.

“We walked for 14 days, at night and in the morning. In the daytime, when the sun was hot, we would stay in the shade,” she explains.

After they reached Marib, she stayed under the control of the smugglers and became pregnant. For months, she lived in one of the tents in a migrant site. A tent houses up to 30 girls and women most of whom are forced to engage in sex work to ‘pay off’ their debts.

View of a tent camp, 2 women walking.
© European Union, 2023 (photographer: Anouk Delafortrie)

An Ethiopian acquaintance who could no longer stand to see Aansi suffer ‘bought’ her freedom, paying the smuggler the equivalent of about €500.

“Go wherever you want, he told me. I became a domestic worker in the [Yemeni] host community. I liked that he didn’t ask for his money back,” Aansi recalls.

They grew close and she ended up marrying him and having his baby.

At the time, Salma was able to help Aansi through her work, with cash assistance, food, a dignity kit, and other essential items, as well as medical care.

Now, 20 years old, Aansi and her husband have given up on going to Saudi Arabia. They want to go back to Ethiopia with IOM Yemen’s Voluntary Humanitarian Return programme.

Aansi talks to Salma about the needs of the girls and women held captive in the migrants’ sites, being abused and extorted, and alerts her to emergencies.

“Most ladies ask for food, clothes, medicines. But a lot of sexual violence also happens,” Aansi says.

“If she has a very poor family back home that cannot pay, they will rape and beat her.”

No time for tears

Salma’s is not an easy job. She is confronted daily with the ugly face of humanity.

“I see a lot of difficult cases. But you have to come, and you have to look okay, and you have to continue. You cannot cry; you have to act professionally.”

One day, Salma was alerted that a girl in one of the tents was in severe pain. The 17-year-old had been tortured and needed immediate gynecological and medical care. Salma came to her rescue and took her to a nearby clinic.

“After they did what was necessary, I took her to one of the [safe] shelters. She stayed there for a while and now she is a domestic worker.”

An aid worker talking to people while seeted at the ground.
© IOM Yemen, Haithm Abdulbaqi

Despite the distressing situations and sadness for those that are tortured, raped, or died, Salma is committed to her job.

Another time, she rushed to hospital after receiving a call on the emergency hotline. A girl had been left for dead on a farm where Ethiopian migrants are put to work, but the hospital would not accept her.

“They told me she’s a hopeless case and they’re dealing with a lot of injured soldiers from the frontline,” Salma says.

The girl’s jaw was broken and her skull had been axed open by the man she had undoubtedly been forced to ‘marry’.

“I saw that she was conscious and listening. When she heard me talking Oromo, she held my hand and didn’t let go.”

“I told her over and over: you won’t die, you are strong, I am with you,” as they set off in an ambulance, from hospital to hospital, until the EU-supported Al Husoon hospital admitted her.  

After surgery Salma visited her every day, bringing her juices. 3 months later the girl was able to walk again and today she is a domestic worker.

“When later our health unit talked to her, all she said was: ‘Salma told me I would be okay and I wouldn’t die and, look, I am okay. I was naked and she bought clothes for me. I will never forget this.’”

“She didn’t remember the big amounts of money we paid for her surgeries, she remembered the juice and the clothes, and my words. That really touched my heart.”

* Names have been changed.

Photo of Anouk Delafortrie

Story by Anouk Delafortrie, Regional Information Officer for the Middle East and North Africa, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations.


Publication date: 17/08/2023