Since the 1940s, Aden has been welcoming outsiders – a factor that has made it unique among Yemeni governorates, in terms of ethnic and cultural diversity. Indians, Ethiopians, Iranians, Somalis and others have all founded communities there, with this diversity shaping the everyday life of Aden’s inhabitants, while also providing it with a tradition of tolerance toward others.
This tradition continued when economic growth and then the unification of North and South Yemen boosted internal migration into the port city dramatically in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet, since the 1994 Civil War, political developments have had a negative impact on Aden’s culture of tolerance. This detrimental effect continues today, with Aden more damaged by the current fighting than at any other time in its history. The worst damage of all has perhaps been that done to its social cohesion.
As this brief outlines, social and political divisions have emerged in recent years between the residents of Aden and those coming into the city – whether those incomers have been ordinary migrants, or have been displaced by the war. As outlined below, hostile rhetoric targeting newcomers from the northern governorates has increased, while there has also been periodic violence against residents with northern origins, who have been subjected to organized deportation campaigns. Those who stand up against such discriminatory practices have also been subjected to hostility.
This brief aims to shine a light on this rising level of discrimination – a wave that has turned a city long known for its tolerance and inclusion into one now forcing people out. The purpose of focusing on this transformation is to look at what measures could be taken to deal with this discrimination and to curb its effects.
A descriptive and analytical approach has been used in researching this brief. A number of interviews with local people in Aden were conducted during June and July 2021, with the author hoping to discover why new definitions of Adeni identity, which exclude northerners, have been created, as well as the wider reasons for discrimination among members of the community.
Representatives from entities affiliated with the internationally recognized government were interviewed in order to learn more about their role in controlling and curbing discrimination. The author sought to find out what the authorities had done to ensure that the rights of civilians who had been subject to such abuses were maintained. The authors also sought to discover what plans and measures had been put in place by the authorities to maintain security and stability in the city in the face of such discriminatory practices.
Interviews were conducted with individuals directly linked to the Southern Transitional Council (STC). These were undertaken in order to find out why the current regime in Aden, represented by the STC and its military wing, was deporting civilians who had come from the northern governorates. The author also wished to ascertain who was issuing the orders forcing northerners out of the city, to what extent such deportation campaigns had achieved their objectives and their impact on Aden’s social fabric.
Finally, interviews were also conducted with Yemeni civilians who had been subjected to discrimination to hear their opinions about what had happened, the justifications that they had been given by the authorities for these actions and who – in their view – had been responsible for what happened.
The current discriminatory practices being carried out in Aden are not spur-of-the-moment actions, nor a result of the more general conflict conditions in Yemen during the current fighting. These actions are a result of what the city has gone through, along with other cities in the south, since the unification of North and South Yemen on May 22, 1990.
According to the unification agreement, Ali Abdullah Saleh (the president of North Yemen) became president of the unified country, while Ali Salem al-Beidh (the president of South Yemen) became vice president. There were shortcomings in this agreement, however, including a lack of clear and implementable provisions. This disrupted the operations of all state institutions, due to a sudden inflation in the number of civil servants, along with differences in methods for dealing with basic issues. The biggest challenge of all, however, was that the military and security forces remained structurally divided.
In December 1991, a wave of assassinations targeting officials and other prominent figures began with the attempted assassination of Omar al-Jawi. Al-Jawi was an early advocate of Yemeni unification and the founder and secretary general of the Yemeni Unionist Gathering Party, although he had grown critical of the direction the unified country was heading. While he survived the attack, his comrade, Hasan al-Huraibi, was killed.
The assassinations continued, with nearly 100 in 1992 alone, mainly targeting members of Vice President Al-Beidh’s Yemeni Socialist Party (YSP), the ‘southern unity partner’ in the unification agreement. Tensions between north and south in unified Yemen continued to rise, with attempts to alleviate this, such as the signing of the Document of Accord and Agreement in Jordan on February 20, 1994, largely failing. War between northern and southern factions subsequently broke out in the summer of 1994. Fatwas were issued in the north that permitted the killing of southerners, with the most infamous of these being the one issued by Sheikh Abdulwahab bin Lutf al-Dailami, the former Yemeni minister of justice.
The north prevailed in the short-lived conflict. President Salah’s forces entered Aden and on July 7, 1994, he declared victory and the end of the war. This also meant the end of ‘unification’ in the voluntary sense, with the north then punishing the defeated south for its attempt to secede. Some of the most important southern institutions prior to unification were destroyed by northern forces, with at least 17 factories and other buildings physically demolished. Assets, including real estate, were sold off, with Sana’a taking control of many facilities in the south.
These developments all added to a feeling of oppression among southerners, many of whom felt their country and its resources were being exploited by President Saleh’s northern regime, while southerners were living in subjugation and exclusion. As anger mounted, many southerners began to see the northern victory as a foreign invasion.
As a result of further discriminatory policies, around 100,000 southern soldiers and civil servants were given early retirement after 1994, with their pensions cut. This triggered the formation in 2007 of the peaceful and nonviolent Southern Movement, which called for either core reforms to the unified state, or southern independence.
The government, however, did not listen to these demands and instead used the security forces against those making them. Human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions, assaults, repression of the freedom of assembly and expression, and the detention of journalists, were among the measures used. These actions, however, only increased the distress of southerners, along with their feeling of being foreigners in their own land. In turn, this boosted support for secessionist sentiments in the south and caused a deepening rejection of anything related to the north.
Saleh’s departure from office after the 2011 uprising failed to curb the growth of these sentiments. Attempts at reconciliation by the new government of President Abdo Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which included an apology for the 1994 war and the actions of the previous regime against southerners, also failed to calm the protests. On the contrary, demonstrations led by the Southern Movement continued, with protestors raising South Yemen flags and chanting their rejection of the government’s apologies. In 2012 and 2013, mass rallies of secessionists were held in Aden on the anniversary of the founding of the South Yemen army, while on May 21, 2014, a major rally was held to mark the 12th anniversary of South Yemen’s secession in 1994. Sit-ins and other protests were also held on other important anniversaries in the south, such as November 30, when South Yemen became independent from Britain in 1967.
In July 2015, Saleh’s forces and their Houthi allies, who had marched south in pursuit of president Hadi, who had fled house arrest in Sana’a for Aden, were expelled from the southern port city by popular resistance forces – an alliance of independents, Salafis, Islah party supporters, and members of the Southern Movement – and forces from the Saudi-led military coalition.
Yet, while the Southern Movement and President Hadi’s internationally recognized government found themselves on the same side in the war against the Houthis, the southerners’ calls for secession did not abate. In fact, these calls were subsequently strengthened by the government’s general absence from Aden, which Hadi – based in Riyadh – had announced as Yemen’s interim capital in March 2015. Secessionist sentiment was also bolstered by support for the STC from the United Arab Emirates, the main partner in the Saudi-led coalition, following the council’s formation in 2017.
In May 2016, the first deportation campaign against civilians from the northern governorates began in Aden. More than 800 people were taken from markets and workplaces, gathered into trucks used to transport goods and taken to the border between Lahj and Taiz governorates – the old frontier between North and South Yemen.
The authorities in Aden justified these measures by saying they were only targeting people who did not have identification papers or official documents showing their place of residence. They claimed this action had also been taken in order to uncover ‘sleeper cells’ threatening the security of the city. This justification, however, proved false, as it was later discovered that most of the deportees did, in fact, have identification papers. Human rights activists also documented deported northerners’ property being confiscated and their businesses closed.
Leaders within the internationally recognized Yemeni government claimed that they were not responsible for these actions and condemned the expulsion of northern civilians from Aden. President Hadi described the deportations as “unacceptable”, while Prime Minister Ahmad Obaid bin Dagher characterized them as illegal and arbitrary, and called for the return of those who had been expelled. The Ministry of Interior stated that these incidents had occurred because of the unregulated relationship between the internationally recognized government and the Saudi-led military coalition. The latter, it said, had established numerous different security forces, some of which were responsible for these abuses, but none of which were not connected to the Ministry of Interior.
Nonetheless, in August 2019, a second deportation campaign was carried out. This came after an August 1 Houthi missile attack on a military base operated by the Security Belt forces, an armed wing of the STC largely supplied and trained by the UAE. The attack killed and injured dozens of Security Belt fighters, including Muneer al-Yafea, also known as Abu al-Yamamah, the commander of the Security Belt’s First Support and Backup Brigade.After Al-Yamamah’s funeral, the STC launched an armed assault on the internationally recognized government forces, driving them out of Aden.
Security Belt fighters reportedly targeted northerners residing in Aden in apparent revenge for the Houthi attacks, detaining, assaulting, harassing, and forcibly expelling “hundreds”, according to the UN. Armed men wearing military uniforms conducted raids alongside ordinary civilians that had gathered to look for northerners. Any that were found were rounded up and deported to Tur Al-Bahah, on the border between Lahj and Taiz.
A.K., one of those deported in 2019, told the author that the armed men who had detained him had threatened to kill him if he did not hand over all his money and his cell phone. Along with other deportees, he was then taken to Yafa district in Lahj governorate, where the deportees were beaten with rifle butts, stabbed in the feet and threatened with being burnt, beheaded and buried alive. A.K. said that eventually he and the other deportees were released near the border with Al-Bayda governorate. There, his captors had said they would fire on a nearby Houthi forces checkpoint, so that when the Houthis responded, they would kill the deportees in the crossfire. He added that the deportees were, however, able to get to the nearest safe area, where the Houthis welcomed them.
The Support and Backup Brigades and the Security Belt forces subsequently denied that they were behind the forced expulsion of people from the northern governorates and the closing of their businesses. Yet, the government’s initial condemnation in 2016, the deportation campaign had repeated in 2019, along with the harassment of individuals from the northern governorates, even if their families had lived in Aden for three or four generations.
Discriminatory measures have not been limited to the mass deportation of Yemenis with northern origins, either. They have also included unjustified detentions and enforced disappearances. These cases affect both those of southern and northern descent, indicating a wider disintegration of the rule of law and Aden’s social fabric.
According to the Abductees’ Mothers Association, a Yemen-based, women-led civil society group, some Aden residents whose origins are in other governorates have been detained by the Security Belt forces and other STC-affiliated groups and ‘disappeared’. This means there is no record of their detention, no charges have ever been brought against them and their whereabouts are unknown.
While group spokeswoman Umat al-Salam Al-Hajj had no numbers specifically for northerners treated in this way, she said 43 people from Aden and other southern governorates had vanished in this manner. In addition, the association had a record of 40 individuals who had been detained for more than four years, while only 12 of them had been charged with a specific crime.
Each wave of deportations has been accompanied by openly discriminatory rhetoric by the STC leadership.
In 2016 and 2019, Hani bin Breik, the Security Belt commander and now deputy president of the STC, made clear statements that northern citizens were not welcome in Aden, asking them not to come to the city.
This rhetoric of division and discrimination has also spread throughout the departments and institutions of the state. One example of this was provided by Ali al-Dharhani, an artist, who said he had not been allowed to go into the Aden governorate office building to request a permit for an art gallery for his work. The justification given to him by the security officer at the door was, “You are a dihbashi and are not allowed to come in here.” A ‘dihbashi’ is a pejorative term used to mock someone from a northern governorate.
Media outlets have also contributed to increasing division within Aden. Asmhan al-Als, Secretary General of the Yemeni Association of History and Antiquities, said that as there was no national and official news source, media rhetoric has only led to further divisions and more hatred. Indeed, all sides in the current conflict have attempted to exploit the power and security vacuum left by an ineffective government and its institutions, with media platforms often becoming propaganda tools for their respective backers – themselves parties to the fighting. Such rhetoric, Al-Als said, was not being opposed by any officials. As a result, Aden no longer has a media or political environment in which calls for peace, community tolerance and the acceptance of others can be made.
K.L., a journalist, said he had been forced to flee from Aden to Hadramawt after being harassed and threatened with arrest after criticizing STC policies. He eventually returned to Aden and has since completely stopped expressing opinions. Another journalist, a correspondent for an Arab news channel in Aden, was forced to flee the city after being targeted by individuals affiliated with the Security Belt forces, who had threatened to kill him and publicly incited others against him.
Another indicator of increased regional discrimination in Aden is a recent rise in the use of pejorative language, such as ‘dihbashi’, to describe those of northern descent.
In addition to the example of this provided by Al-Dharhani above, A.A., a journalist from Sana’a, told the author that he had been stopped twice by Security Belt forces at checkpoints on the road from Sana’a to Aden, near the city of Al-Dhalea, in December 2015 and August 2019. Both times, the justification given was that he was a “dihbashi”. A.A. also said he would have been prevented from continuing to Aden were it not for the intervention of southerners who were traveling with him.
The discriminatory actions at checkpoints are in violation of the Yemeni Constitution, which states in Article 57 that freedom of movement from one place to another within the country is guaranteed for all citizens. It further states that movement may not be restricted, except by law, or for security and safety reasons, and that no citizen may be deported from, or denied return to, the country.
Another pejorative is the term ‘1948 Arabs’. This is used negatively to describe northerners who have lived in the south – and Aden in particular – since before independence from Britain in 1967. The term now appears on social media platforms and is used to entrench divisions.
Mugeeb al-Wasabi, an academic at Aden University, said that his scheduled ticket from Aden airport in June 2021 had been sold to another passenger for a higher price a few hours before the plane took off. When he protested to airport officials, they insulted and bullied him and threatened to tear his passport up. They had also called him a “1948 Arab”, after one official saw that his family name was from an area in northern Yemen.
The social fabric in Aden has been badly affected by discriminatory practices. Al-Als said that everyone in the city, whether they were a southerner or had northern roots, has been impacted by the political situation and the divisions between political parties. Accusations were being traded between the government and the STC, yet no steps were being taken for the welfare of the people, she said.
Aden residents who spoke to the author in July 2021 described the city as being in a state of deterioration, in terms of services, rights and the economy, with even basic necessities no longer available. They described a city without regular water and electricity, jobs or security, due to the absence of real policing or services that took into account the rights of the inhabitants.
The ability of activists and civil society organizations to deal with negative and discriminatory practices and to oppose inciteful rhetoric has also been limited. This is due to security problems, the absence of the state, and a lack of pressure on the parties helping to spread divisive rhetoric. Some human rights activists have also been directly or indirectly involved in the political conflict, dealing with issues based on their political affiliations or the opinions of the entities financing them. This has badly impacted their credibility and effectiveness.
For many years, Aden was known as ‘Yemen’s Smile’ – a cosmopolitan city of tolerance and coexistence, accepting its inhabitants’ different beliefs and backgrounds.
Now, however, a different side of Aden has appeared: one of expulsion and exclusion, as regionalist rhetoric has led to division and fragmentation. Actions against Yemeni citizens thought to be from the north have increased, as has the feeling of insecurity – despite many different security forces being present in the city. Despite this, the internationally recognized government and its institutions continue to regard the situation with indifference, issuing only weak statements or instructions, while taking no decisive steps toward a solution. This approach has only worsened the situation, accelerating Aden’s decline.
To the Internationally Recognized Government:
To the STC:
To Media Organizations:
To Local Rights Organizations and Civil Society:
To the Saudi-led Coalition:
This report was produced as part of the Yemen Peace Forum, a Sana’a Center initiative that seeks to empower the next generation of Yemeni youth and civil society activists to engage in critical national issues.
The Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies is an independent think-tank that seeks to foster change through knowledge production with a focus on Yemen and the surrounding region. The Center’s publications and programs, offered in both Arabic and English, cover diplomatic, political, social, economic and security-related developments, aiming to impact policy locally, regionally, and internationally.