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  • Nathalie Peutz (a1)


Drawing on ethnographic research conducted in Djibouti's Markazi camp for refugees from Yemen between 2016 and 2018, this article examines the complex motivating factors that drove a subset of Yemenis to seek refuge in the Horn of Africa. Although the primary reason for their flight to the Horn of Africa was the ongoing war, a secondary but not inconsequential driver of many of these Yemeni refugees’ current displacement was their family histories of transnational migrations and interethnic marriages. This article argues that, for this group, it was their “mixed” (muwallad) Arab and African parentage and resulting alienation in Yemen that made their flight imaginable—and, in their view, imperative. Although “mixed motive migration” is not unusual, this example underscores how spatial and social (im)mobilities in Yemen and the Horn of Africa region have been co-constituted across generations. More importantly, it has critical implications for the recently adopted Global Compact on Refugees, which promotes (among other solutions) the “local integration” of refugees in their proximate host societies.



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Author's note: The research for this article was supported by NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD)’s Research Enhancement Fund and reviewed by NYUAD's Institutional Review Board. I am grateful to Djibouti's Office National d'Assistance aux Réfugiés et Sinistrés for permitting my entry to Markazi camp; to the representatives of the UNHCR, IOM, and various NGOs for meeting with me; and to the photographer Nadia Benchallal who accompanied me during much of this fieldwork. Versions of this article were presented, in 2017, at the Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (American Institute for Yemeni Studies General Meeting) in Washington, D.C. and, in 2018, at the Arab Crossroads Studies Lecture Series at NYUAD, the NYUAD Institute in New York, the Council on Middle East Studies’ Arabian Peninsula Lecture Series at Yale University, and Yonsei University in South Korea. I thank these audiences and the anonymous reviewers and editors of IJMES for their constructive feedback. I am especially grateful to the refugees in Markazi who shared their experiences and extended their hospitality and trust. I sincerely hope they will achieve what they consider “a proper future” for themselves and their children.

1 Interview with the author (Arabic) in Markazi Camp, Obock, Djibouti, March 2018. All names are pseudonyms. Most interviews were conducted in Arabic. However, some interlocutors chose to speak English during parts of our interviews or conversations (as indicated in the respective footnotes).

2 See, for example, “Remarks by the Secretary-General to the Pledging Conference on Yemen,” 3 April 2018, accessed 1 June 2018,

3 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Humanitarian Needs Overview 2018: Yemen,” December 2017, accessed 1 June 2018,

4 Hannam, Kevin, Sheller, Mimi, and Urry, John, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities, and Moorings,” Mobilities 1 (2006): 122.

5 Zimmermann, Susan E., “Reconsidering the Problem of ‘Bogus’ Refugees with ‘Socio-Economic Motivations’ for Seeking Asylum,” Mobilities 6 (2011): 341. For more on the problematic distinctions drawn between refugees, asylum seekers, and socioeconomic migrants (or between forced migration and “voluntary” migration), see Jureidini, Ray, “The Convergence of Migrants and Refugees: Western and Muslim Perspectives,” Sociology of Islam 5 (2017): 224–47.

6 During fieldwork conducted over six seasons (December 2016–January 2017, March 2017, October 2017, January 2018, March 2018), I conducted one hundred formal interviews, either through one-on-one semistructured interviews with the male or female heads of household or through group interviews with several household members at once. Although the camp's population is constantly fluctuating, it has been estimated that the camp hosts approximately 300 households at any given time (as suggested also by its recent acquisition of 300 housing units). If this is accurate, then I have interviewed close to one-third of the Markazi households—although, of course, my data comprises interviews with persons who have since left Djibouti as well as with newer arrivals. In addition to these interviews, I gathered qualitative data through group discussions with male and female coworkers and friendship groups and through participant observation in homes, shops, and public areas. Before each interview or new gathering, I explained that I had no connection to any government or relief agency and that I was therefore unable to assist anyone directly. It was especially important that I stress the academic nature of this project given that I was usually accompanied by the photographer Nadia Benchallal who was taking photographs of daily life and portraits of refugee households for an exhibit that we organized at New York University Abu Dhabi. We also gave cameras to nine refugees whom Benchallal guided through workshops and whose photographs we exhibited in Markazi and in Djibouti City. The photographic component of this research project—which deserves more analysis, one that is beyond the scope of this article—helped us to build relationships with refugees throughout the camp and to include a core group of them in this collaborative framing. See Rebecca Buxton, “How Yemeni Refugees Photographed Their World,” Refugees Deeply, 31 May 2018, accessed 22 March 2019,

7 See, e.g., Bang, Anna K., Sufis and Scholars of the Sea: Family Networks in East Africa, 1860–1925 (London: Routledge, 2003); Boxberger, Linda, On the Edge of Empire: Hadhramawt, Emigration, and the Indian Ocean, 1880s–1930s (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 2002); Brehony, Noel, ed., Hadhramaut and Its Diaspora: Yemeni Politics, Identity and Migration (London: I.B.Tauris, 2017); Freitag, Ulrike, Indian Ocean Migrants and State Formation in Hadramout: Reforming the Homeland (Brill: Leiden, 2003); Ho, Engseng, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 2006); and Manger, Leif, The Hadrami Diaspora: Community-Building on the Indian Ocean Rim (Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2010).

8 Bezabeh, Samson A., Subjects of Empires/Citizens of States: Yemenis in Djibouti and Ethiopia (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2016); Colton, Nora Ann, “Political and Economic Realities of Labor Migration in Yemen,” in Yemen into the 21st Century: Continuity and Change, ed. Mahdi, Kamil A., Wurth, Anna, and Lackner, Helen (Reading, UK: Ithaca Press, 2007), 5378; Miran, Jonathan, Red Sea Citizens: Cosmopolitan Society and Cultural Change in Massawa (Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2009); Regt, Marina de, “‘Close Ties’: Gender, Labor and Migration between Yemen and the Horn of Africa,” in Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition, ed. Lackner, Helen (London: Saqi Books, 2014), 287303.

9 See Halliday, Fred, Arabs in Exile: Yemeni Migrants in Urban Britain (London: I.B.Tauris, 1992); and Searle, Kevin, From Farms to Foundries: An Arab Community in Industrial Britain (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010).

10 See Abraham, Nabeel and Shryock, Andrew, eds., Arab Detroit: From Margin to Mainstream (Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 2000); and Friedlander, Jonathan, ed., Sojourner and Settlers: The Yemeni Immigrant Experience (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1988).

11 By 1975, as many as 1,230,000 Northern Yemenis—approximately 19 percent of its total population—had migrated to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. See el-Mallakh, Ragaei, The Economic Development of the Yemen Arab Republic, Reprint Edition (New York: Routledge, 2015 [1986]), 1527. Moreover, it is estimated that more than 18 percent—and perhaps as much as one-quarter—of Yemen's total labor force (male and female) was working as short-term migrant laborers in the Arab Gulf; Fergany, Nader, “Impact of Emigration on National Development in the Arab Region: The Case of the Yemen Arab Republic,” International Migration Review 16 (1982): 761.

12 Colton, “Political and Economic Realities”; Fergany, “Impact of Emigration on National Development.”

13 Bezabeh, Subjects of Empires/Citizens of States; Connie Carøe Christiansen, “Gender and Social Remittances: Return Migrants to Yemen from Eastern Africa,” Chroniques yéménites 17 (2012),; De Regt, Marina, “From Yemen to Eritrea and Back: A Twentieth-Century Family History,” Northeast African Studies 17 (2017): 2550; De Regt, “Close Ties”; Rouaud, Alain, “Pour une histoire des Arabes de Djibouti, 1896–1977,” Cahiers d’Études africaines 387 (1997): 319–48.

14 De Regt, “Close Ties”; De Regt, “From Yemen to Eritrea and Back.”

15 Colton, Nora Ann, “Homeward Bound: Yemeni Return Migration,” International Migration Review 27 (1993): 870–82; Van Hear, Nicholas, “The Socio-Economic Impact of the Involuntary Mass Return to Yemen in 1990,” Journal of Refugee Studies 7 (1994): 1838; Stevenson, Thomas B., “Yemeni Workers Come Home: Reabsorbing One Million Migrants,” Middle East Report 181 (1993): 1520.

16 Colton, “Political and Economic Realities,” 69.

17 Thiollet, Hélène, “From Migration Hub to Asylum Crisis: The Changing Dynamics of Contemporary Migration in Yemen,” in Why Yemen Matters: A Society in Transition, ed. Lackner, Helen (London: Saqi Books, 2014), 267–86.

18 The Republic of Yemen hosted seventy-nine refugees per one USD GDP (PPP) per capita. Although this was only one-tenth of what the Republic of Tanzania was hosting at the time (738 refugees per one USD GDP per capita), it was considerably more than France and Canada (four), the United Kingdom (eight), the United States (twelve), and Germany (twenty-six); UNHCR, Statistical Yearbook 2006, Chapter VII: Capacities and Contributions of Host Countries [2008], accessed 1 June 2018,

19 Halliday, Fred, preface to From Farms to Foundries: An Arab Community in Industrial Britain, by Searle, Kevin (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2010), xv.

20 Marina De Regt, “A Grim New Phase in Yemen's Migration History,” Middle East Report, 15 April 2015, accessed 22 March 2019,

21 This number, calculated in November 2018, includes 3.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and the 1.28 million IDPs who have returned to their place of residence—not because conditions had improved but because they had become equally dire in the areas to which they had fled; IOM, “Yemen Displacement Report Round 37,” March 2019, accessed 8 May 2019,

22 UNHCR, “Yemen Situation Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan,” 31 October 2017, accessed 22 March 2019, These figures were last updated on 31 October 2017; newer figures are available from monthly reports by country but the data sets are not readily comparable.

23 In 2018, more than 160,000 East African migrants crossed the Red Sea and entered war-torn Yemen, exceeding the number of migrants (144,000) who entered Europe via the Mediterranean Sea the same year; Helen Lackner, “Migrant Crisis in Europe? Look at Yemen,” Open Democracy, 19 February 2019, accessed 22 March 2019, Most of these are Ethiopian migrants who walk from their villages to Djibouti's Red Sea port of Obock from where they are smuggled across the sea into Yemen, a crossing that took the lives of at least fifty-two migrants in early 2019 when two overcrowded boats capsized off Djibouti; Associated Press, “At Least 52 Dead After Boats Capsize Off Djibouti, U.N. Migration Agency Says,” The New York Times, 30 January 2019, accessed 22 March 2019,

24 UNHCR, “Yemen Situation Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan,” 31 October 2017, accessed 22 March 2019,

25 UNHCR, “Somalia: 1–31 December 2017,” 14 February 2018, accessed 1 June 2018,

26 By late May 2015, an estimated 13,000 people had arrived in Djibouti; just under half of these were Yemeni nationals (the rest were transiting third-country nationals and Djiboutian returnees). See International Federation of the Red Cross, “Emergency Plan of Action, Operation Update: Djibouti: Yemeni Refugees,” 2015, accessed 22 March 2019,; and UNHCR, “Djibouti Response Plan for Yemen Crisis, April–September 2015,” May 2015, accessed 22 March 2019,

27 UNCHR, “Yemen Situation Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan. January-December 2015,” December 2015, accessed 1 June 2018,

28 The same headcount found 2,768 Yemenis registered as refugees in Djibouti city; UNHCR, “Djibouti Fact Sheet,” September 2015, accessed 1 June 2018,

29 See “UNHCR/Qatar Red Crescent and Better Shelter,” n.d., accessed 1 June 2018,

30 See “MoMA Includes Better Shelter in Its Permanent Collection,” 13 October 2016, accessed 1 June 2018,; and “Beazley Designs of the Year 2016,” 24 November 2016, accessed 1 June 2018,

31 Interview with the author (English), Djibouti, 1 December 2016.

32 Interview with the author (English), Djibouti, 1 December 2016.

33 This “incentive”— of approximately ten USD per day—is the same rate received by the Ethiopian “illegal migrants” passing by the camp if they reach and work illegally in Saudi Arabia.

34 On the overlap between mobilities and forced migration—especially how “movement begets constraint, constraint begets movement, and movement occurs within constraints and constraints within movements”—see Gill, Nick, Caletrio, Javier, and Mason, Victoria, “Introduction: Mobilities and Forced Migration,” Mobilities 6 (2011): 301–16.

35 The total number of registered refugees from Yemen in Djibouti at the end of December 2018 was 4,916; UNHCR, “Djibouti Fact Sheet, January 2019,” accessed 22 March 2019, Between March 2015 and October 2017, an estimated 38,000 refugees entered Djibouti; of these approximately 20,000 were Yemeni nationals; UNHCR, “Yemen Situation Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan,” 31 October 2017, accessed 22 March 2019, Markazi's population rose to around 3,000 toward the end of 2015, but nearly half of its residents returned to Yemen in early 2016 following assurances by Gulf countries of assistance at home; UNHCR representative, interview with the author, Djibouti, 1 December 2016. See also UNCHR, “Yemen Situation Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan: January–December 2016,” December 2015, accessed 22 March 2019,

36 Shuaib Almosawa and Kareem Fahim, “Airstrikes in Yemen Hit Wedding Party, Killing Dozens,” New York Times, 28 September 2015, accessed 22 March 2019,

37 Interview with the author (Arabic), Markazi, 5 January 2017. In late 2018, refugees from Dhubab began returning to their village as the conflict had moved elsewhere.

38 See Chimni, B. S., “From Resettlement to Involuntary Repatriation: Towards a Critical History of Durable Solutions to Refugee Problems,” Refugee Survey Quarterly 23 (2004): 5573; and Long, Katy, “When Refugees Stopped Being Migrants: Movement, Labor and Humanitarian Protection,” Migration Studies 1 (2013): 426.

39 These 29,000 refugees and asylum seekers comprise nearly 3 percent of Djibouti's population (estimated just under 1,000,000) at a time that its unemployment hovers around 40 percent; “Djibouti Economic Outlook - Spring 2018” (English) (MENA Economic Outlook Brief, Washington, D.C., 2018), accessed 22 March 2019,; UNHCR, “Djibouti Fact Sheet, January 2019,” accessed 22 March 2019,

40 These actions followed the 2016 New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, which laid out a vision for a Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) to be applied in a dozen countries—Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Somalia (and neighboring counties), Zambia, and six countries in Central America—and from Djibouti's embrace of the Nairobi Declaration on Durable Solutions for Somali Refugees in March 2017. See “CRRF Global Digital Portal: Djibouti,” n.d., accessed 1 June 2018, For an overview, see Hansen, Randall, “The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework: A Commentary,” Journal of Refugee Studies 31 (2018): 131–51.

41 Republic of Djibouti, Décret fixant les modalités d'exercice des droits fondamentaux des réfugiés et demandeurs d'asile en République de Djibouti, 2017-410/PR/MI, 7 December 2017, accessed 1 June 2018,

42 Catherine Wachiaya, “UN Refugee Chief Praises Djibouti New Refugee Laws,” Relief Web, 15 December 2017, accessed 1 June 2018,

43 The total cost of the project (for 300 housing units, a 300-sq. meter school, and a 180-sq. meter mosque) was 2,500,000 USD; Nuryap Inşaat, “Nuryap and Nevka Companies Completed the Obock Camp Project in Djibuti,” n.d., accessed 1 June 2018,

44 Because of the dramatic turnover in the camp, an argument based solely on numbers would be misleading. Nevertheless, of the one hundred households I interviewed—fifty-three of which had come from the Taiz governorate (which includes Dhubab and Wahija), thirty from Aden, twenty-eight from Sanaa, six from al-Hudaydah, and one each from Ibb, Shabwa, and Lahij—at least twenty-nine households self-identified as muwallad and four households had been refugees in Yemen prior to the war (three from Eritrea, one from Somalia).

45 De Regt, “From Yemen to Eritrea and Back,” 30. Reputed to be the black descendants of Christian Ethiopian soldiers who invaded Yemen in the 6th century, the akhdām (who refer to themselves as al-muhammashīn, “the marginalized”) continue to be treated as social outcasts confined to jobs such as garbage collection and street cleaning. Comprising 5 to 10 percent of Yemen's population, the akhdām/muhammashīn are suffering additional vulnerabilities and discrimination due to the war; Rania el-Rajji, “‘Even War Discriminates’: Yemen's Minorities, Exiled at Home” (brief for the Minority Rights Group International, 2016), accessed 22 March 2019,, 12.

46 Gabriele vom Bruck, Islam, Memory, and Morality in Yemen (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 8–9.

47 De Regt, “Close Ties”; Pandya, Sophia, “Yemenis and Muwalladīn in Addis Ababa: Blood Purity and the Opportunities of Hybridity,” Journal of Arabian Studies: Arabia, the Gulf and the Red Sea 4 (2014): 96114; Walker, Iain, “Hadramis, Shimalis and Muwalladin: Negotiating Cosmopolitan Identities between the Swahili Coast and Southern Yemen,” Journal of Eastern African Studies 2 (2008): 4459.

48 Ho discusses the alienation of muwalladīn of Hadhrami-Asian descent who felt out of place in their homeland but did not seem to have experienced as much overt racism, perhaps also due to their elite (sāda) social status. See Ho, Enseng, “Hadhramis Abroad in the Hadhramaut: The Muwalladīn,” in Hadrami Traders, Scholars and Statesmen in the Indian Ocean, 1750s–1960, ed. Freitag, Ulrike and Clarence-Smith, William G. (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 131–46; and Ho, Graves of Tarim.

49 Al-Jumly, Mohammed and Rollins, J. Barton, “Emigration and the Rise of the Novel in Yemen,” World Literature Today 71 (1997): 41.

50 Abdul-Wali, Mohammad, They Die Strangers: A Novella and Stories from Yemen, trans. Bagader, Abubaker and Akers, Deborah (Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press, 2001 [1997]), 65.

51 Prior to 2003, only children born to a Yemeni father acquired Yemeni citizenship at birth (except for foundlings or children born to a Yemeni mother and a legally unknown father). Dual nationality and naturalization were possible only in exceptional cases. A 2003 amendment extended citizenship to children of Yemeni mothers who had become divorced from their foreign spouse. A 2010 amendment finally permitted full maternal jus sanguinis as well as dual citizenship. In Ethiopia and Somalia, citizenship was also generally conferred by male lineage, until recently; in Somaliland and Djibouti, citizenship is conferred by the father only, unless the child's father is unknown. Except in certain cases, Eritrea and Ethiopia prohibit dual citizenship. Somaliland's 2002 Citizenship Law and Djibouti's 2004 Nationality Law permit dual citizenship; as of 2012, Somalia's Provisional Constitution does, too. This means that, even now, children born of mixed marriages between Yemeni nationals and nationals of Horn of Africa countries will assume the single nationality of their father—with the exception of children born to Yemeni fathers and Somali mothers or children born to Yemeni mothers and Somali, Somalilander, or Djiboutian fathers who could, theoretically, acquire dual citizenship. See the Law on Yemeni Nationality (No. 6 of 1990), 26 August 1990,; Proclamation on Ethiopian Nationality (No. 378 of 2003), 23 December 2003,; Eritrean Nationality Proclamation (No. 21/1992), 6 April 1992,; The Provisional Constitution of the Federal Republic of Somalia, 1 August 2012,; Republic of Somaliland Citizenship Law (No. 22/2002), 3 June 2002,; Code de la Nationalité Djiboutienne (No. 79/AN/04/5ème L), 24 October 2004,, all accessed 22 March 2019. See also Laura Van Waas, “A Comparative Analysis of Nationality Laws in the MENA region,” 9 September 2014, accessed 1 June 2018,

52 See, e.g., Masquelier, Adeline, “Why Katrina's Victims Aren't Refugees: Musings on a ‘Dirty’ Word,” American Anthropologist 108 (2006): 735–43.

53 Interview with the author (Arabic), Markazi, 14 December 2016.

54 On this day, President Salih's supporters opened fire into a crowd of unarmed, antigovernment protestors gathered for prayer in Change Square, killing forty-five individuals and wounding hundreds, prompting many government officials to resign; Human Rights Watch, “Unpunished Massacre: Yemen's Failed Response to the ‘Friday of Dignity’ Killings,” 2013, accessed 25 March 2019,

55 This is a line from al-Baraduni's 1973 poem, “al-Ghazu min al-Dakhil” (The Attack from Within). See ʿAbd Allah al-Baraduni, Diwan ʿAbd Allah al-Baradduni, vol. 1 (Sanaa: al-Hayaʾ al-ʿAmma li-l-Kitab, 2002), 680–84. A more literal translation is “Yemenis are in exile, and others are exiled in Yemen”; see Al Areqi, Rashad Mohammad Moqbel, “Ideology of Exile and Problematic of Globalization in Al Baraduni's Poetry,” International Journal of Applied Linguistics and English Literature 5 (2016): 22. This translation, which comes closer to Yusuf's interpretation, is taken from Abdulsalam al-Rubaidi, “Imagining an Alternative Homeland: Humanism in Contemporary Yemeni Novels as a Vision for Social and Political Reform,” Center for Applied Research in Partnership with the Orient (CARPO) Study 6 (2018): 11, accessed 22 March 2018,

56 Interview with the author (English), Markazi, 28 December 2017.

57 Interview with the author (English), Markazi, 13 March 2018.

58 Interview with the author (English), Markazi, 28 December 2017.

59 Interview with the author (Arabic), Markazi, 30 December 2017.

60 For an overview of why Eritreans have been fleeing and of the camps that house them in Ethiopia and Djibouti (among other countries), see Connell, Dan, “Refugees, Migration, and Gated Nations: The Eritrean Experience,” African Studies Association 59 (2016): 217–25.

61 Theoretically, these individuals could be considered “flexible refugees” in the same way that Ong describes holders of multiple passports as “flexible citizens”: entrepreneurial and cosmopolitan migrants for whom refugee status is a necessary surrogate for weak citizenship from failing states; Ong, Aihwa, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999).

62 This need not be conspiratorial. For a review of the sedentarist (and paternalistic) assumptions guiding development interventions in Africa, see Oliver Bakewell, “‘Keeping Them in Their Place’: The Ambivalent Relationship between Development and Migration in Africa,” Third World Quarterly 29 (2008): 1341–58.

63 Hansen, Randall, “The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework: A Commentary,” Journal of Refugee Studies 31 (2018): 141.

64 United Nations General Assembly, New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants: resolution/adopted by the General Assembly A/RES/71/1, 3 October 2016, paragraph 68, accessed 1 June 2018,

65 Nathalie Riise, “UNGA Votes to Adopt Global Compact on Refugees,” 18 December 2018, accessed 23 March 2019, For the text, see United Nations General Assembly, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees: Part II Global Compact on Refugees A/73/12 (Part II), 13 September 2018, accessed 22 March 2019,



  • Nathalie Peutz (a1)


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