July 5, 2010
Hundreds of people are enslaved in Yemen, a local human rights group has claimed.
The National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms, a Yemeni human rights organization known locally as “Hood,” launched a national anti-slavery campaign on Sunday following reports in local media that there are hundreds of slaves in remote areas of northwestern Yemen.
The rights group called on the country’s prosecutor-general to prosecute slave masters and for the government to build housing complexes on a fertile plot of land to help those emancipated from slavery get a new start.
“We asked the government to look into the problem and the general prosecutor to investigate,” Khaled Al-Anesi, a lawyer with the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms told The Media Line. “They promised to investigate the problem but we don’t yet have a clear idea what they will do. We will follow up with them.”
The campaign follows a series of investigative reports in Al Masdar, an independent weekly newspaper, which claim there are some 500 slaves in the Al Zohrah district of Al Hudaydah Governorate, west of Sana’a and the Kuaidinah and Khairan Al-Muharraq districts of the Hajjah Governorate, north of the capital. The paper claimed that a number of sheikhs and local authorities are slave owners.
“There is no clear figure as to how many slaves there are but it’s a big problem, with many people who are slaves in many areas,” Al-Anesi claimed. “Since we announced the campaign we have receiving a number of specific complaints from victims of slavery. We have their names and their addresses and we know who owned them.”
“They can’t run away because no one will help them,” he continued. “The government neglects the problem and there are no organizations in civil society to help them. They have nowhere to go.”
Yemen’s human rights ministry has reportedly sent a fact-finding committee to the two districts and the National Organization for Defending Rights and Freedoms now claims that after consultations with community leaders in the affected areas, it believes the number of slaves is likely much higher than originally estimated.
The organization is arranging a group of volunteer lawyers to visit regions of the country where slavery is believed to be most prevalent to provide legal assistance to slaves and warn their owners that they will face legal action if the slaves are not freed.
The group also plans to send a high profile delegation of dignitaries to advocate for social and humanitarian assistance for slaves, most likely in the form of a fund, should the government be unwilling or unable to take up the cause.
Rights advocates say there are two common forms of slavery in Yemen: ‘inheritance’ and migration. With inheritance, the descendants of the slave’s owner upon death inherit a slave and their family. In the case of migration, poor migrants arriving in Yemen from Africa find themselves indebted to businessmen who helped pay their passage.
“In Yemen there is a social class of people called ‘the servants,’ who have usually come from Somalia or other African countries, who live in a stage of bondage and are very widely disregarded in society,” Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division told The Media Line. “It has to do with dark skin, being foreign and living in poverty or in debt.”
The Arab slave trade goes back well over a millennium and Arab slave traders are estimated to have enslaved between 12 and 20 million people. Slavery was common throughout the Arabian Peninsula until it was abolished in 1962. Since then, holding someone in servitude is punishable by up to 10 years of prison time under Yemeni law.
Rights advocates, however, say the remnants of slavery still exist throughout the region, with women and children trafficked to the Gulf States from Eastern Europe, the post-Soviet states, Africa and Asia, and migrants forced into servitude to pay off debts of passage.
“Property in Islamic law is so well protected that if you fail to repay debt, you can be held liable not only with your own property but with your liberty,” Wilcke said. “While this is only one particular angle of Islamic law, you could call it codified custom which still exists on the books in many countries in the region, including Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and a number of Muslim countries in the Middle East.”
On the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is one of the world’s most impoverished countries and the poorest nation in the Middle East. With a population of 24 million, Yemen has a deeply entrenched tribal society with many rural communities out of the realm of central government control.
Yemen has plenty of problems, from a serious impending water crises and an economy overly dependent on a dying oil sector, to Somali pirates, a secessionist movement in the south, the Houthi rebellion in the north and a growing Al-Qa’ida presence.