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Yemen 2020 Crime & Safety Report

This is an annual report produced in conjunction with the Regional Security Office of U.S. Embassy Sana’a, provisionally based at U.S. Embassy Riyadh, Saudi Arabia and known as the Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU). OSAC encourages travelers to use this report to gain baseline knowledge of security conditions in Yemen. For more in-depth information, review OSAC’s Yemen country page for original OSAC reporting, consular messages, and contact information, some of which may be available only to private-sector representatives with an OSAC password.

Travel Advisory

The current U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory at the date of this report’s publication assesses Yemen at Level 4, indicating travelers should not travel to the country due to terrorism, civil unrest, health risks, kidnapping, armed conflict, and landmines. Review OSAC’s report, Understanding the Consular Travel Advisory System.

Overall Crime and Safety Situation

Now in its fifth year, Yemen’s civil conflict has exacerbated the world’s worst food security emergency and cholera epidemic, and engendered a war economy that further disadvantages the most vulnerable. The protracted war has drawn in neighboring states; it has led to collapsed state institutions, local power vacuums and ungoverned spaces that militias and terrorists are exploiting to threaten close regional allies. The war has complicated ongoing counterterrorism efforts and has provided Iran a space to pursue its own ambitions in Yemen, further threatening regional stability.

Crime Threats 

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Yemen as being a CRITICAL-threat location for crime directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. Due to the ongoing civil unrest throughout the country, travelers should not rely on assistance from local authorities. The current conflict has caused the deterioration and dislocation of Yemen’s security sector. The Houthis remain in control of much of Yemen’s traditional military infrastructure and weapons caches in the north. The Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) armed forces continue to reconstitute themselves, even as they fight the Houthis and an expanded AQAP presence, in partnership with the Saudi-led Coalition (SLC). The Fragile State Index ranks Yemen as the world’s most fragile state due to the ongoing conflict, resulting in an increased crime rate and a decrease in law enforcement. The instability created by Yemen’s security, economic, and social conditions has created a fertile environment for crime and corruption both in the areas controlled by the Houthis and the internationally recognized government. Despite the prevalence of checkpoints throughout the country, criminal activities such as kidnapping, petty theft, carjacking, scams, abuses, sexual harassment, assault, murder, violence, looting and robbery are increasing at an alarming rate.

Although the law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention, both continue to occur because most Yemenis working in law enforcement have not received salaries for several years or are paid very low salaries, fostering an environment ripe for corruption. Those in Houthi-controlled areas have accused U.S. citizens of being spies for the U.S. Government, subjecting them to strict surveillance and arbitrary detention. Detainees face torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment. Prison conditions are mostly harsh and life threatening, and do not meet international standards. Burglaries and home invasions are becoming more and more common, especially in the areas of direct conflict. SLC airstrikes, Houthi mortar strikes, and direct confrontations among armed groups in engagement zones cause civilian deaths. 

In 2015, the SLC initiated an air campaign in support of the internationally recognized Yemeni government. A nationwide cessation of hostilities ended in 2016, and high levels of violence, to include armed conflict, artillery shelling, and air strikes, persist in areas throughout the country. Instability and ongoing threats in Yemen are at a severe level.

Transportation-Safety Situation

Travel by road in Yemen is risky. Although there are traffic officers everywhere, driving around Sana’a and all other Yemeni cities is extremely hazardous. Authorities do not enforce standard driving and traffic rules, and drivers mostly ignore the instructions and existence of traffic officers. It is common to see a person driving on the wrong side of the road or at high rates of speed. Vehicles mostly do not meet U.S. safety standards. Many vehicles lack proper lighting or mirrors and are unlicensed. If they exist, traffic lights may not be in working condition, and streetlights are often non-functioning due to a lack of electricity. Streets are crowded with motorcycles, which mostly are unlicensed and used as taxis; motorcyclists are often involved in accidents since they do not have dedicated lanes and drivers do not obey the traffic rules. It is common to find security checkpoints every 300 meters, which causes crowding on the streets. It is common to see underage drivers or heavy trucks moving in the main streets during the day. Street hazards include large potholes, which are widespread due to a lack of maintenance and unmarked speed bumps. Traveling on the roads between cities can be very dangerous due to carjacking and kidnapping, which mostly target foreigners; perpetrators often kill victims of carjacking and kidnapping. 

Traffic accidents are common due to a lack of obedience with basic traffic rules and poor vehicle maintenance. Drivers of all types of vehicles may drive under the influence of qat, considered a Schedule 1 narcotic in the U.S.  

Saudi Arabia has reinforced its concrete-filled security barrier along sections of the fully demarcated border with Yemen to stem illegal cross-border activities.

Review OSAC’s reports, Road Safety Abroad, Driving Overseas: Best Practices, and Evasive Driving Techniques; and read the State Department’s webpage on driving and road safety abroad.

Aviation Security 

The United States is concerned about the risk to civil aviation operating in specified areas of the Sana’a Flight Information Region (FIR) due to the ongoing military operations, political instability, and violence from competing armed groups involved in combat operations and other military-related activity. The FAA has prohibited U.S. civil aviation from flying in specific areas within the FIR. For more information, please review OSAC’s Report, Security in Transit: Airplanes, Public Transport, and Overnights

Maritime Security  

Mariners planning travel to Yemen should check for U.S. maritime advisories and alerts on the MARAD website, the U.S. Coast Guard homeport website, and the NGA broadcast warnings website

Vessels in the region of the Red Sea, Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, and the Gulf of Aden, including near the island of Socotra, should operate under a heightened state of alert as increasing tensions in the region increase the potential for direct or collateral damage to vessels transiting the area. These threats may come from a variety of different sources such as missiles, projectiles, or waterborne improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Piracy in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Indian Ocean remains a security threat to maritime activities in the region. The United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) advises that elevated regional tensions have increased the risk of maritime attacks by extremists to vessels operating in the Gulf of Oman, North Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Bab el Mandeb regions. 

MARAD recommends vessels at anchor, operating in restricted maneuvering environments, or at slow speeds should be especially vigilant and report suspicious activity. U.S. flag vessels that observe suspicious activity in the area should report such suspicious activity or any hostile or potentially hostile action to the COMUSNAVCENT Battlewatch Captain at +973-1785-3879. Report all suspicious activities and events to the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center at 1-800-424-8802, 1-202-267-2675, or TDD 1-202-267-4477. Review the Department of State’s International Maritime Piracy Fact Sheet and the MARAD advisory on vessels transiting high risk waters

Terrorism Threat

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Yemen as being a CRITICAL-threat location for terrorism directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. The threat posed by violent extremist groups in Yemen remains high. Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has expanded its influence in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict. Because of the instability and violence in Yemen, the internationally recognized government cannot effectively enforce counterterrorism measures and a large security vacuum persists. AQAP has benefitted from the conflict by significantly expanding its presence in the southern and eastern governorates. ISIS also has established a presence in Yemen, and has claimed responsibility for several deadly attacks throughout Yemen since 2016. Methods include suicide bombings, vehicle borne IEDs (VBIEDs), ambushes, kidnappings, and targeted assassinations. The U.S. government remains extremely concerned about possible attacks on U.S. citizens (whether visiting or residing in Yemen), U.S. private-sector facilities, and perceived U.S. and Western interests.

Political, Economic, Religious, and Ethnic Violence

The U.S. Department of State has assessed Yemen as being a CRITICAL-threat location for political violence directed at or affecting official U.S. government interests. All areas of Yemen continue to suffer high levels of violence due to limited government control, ongoing military operations, the prevalence of non-state military formations and political instability. Frequent airstrikes and shelling in many areas of Yemen have led to high levels of civilian casualties.  

In August 2019, UAE-backed Security Belt Forces, many of which aligned with the Southern Transitional Council (STC), took over the internationally recognized government’s temporary capital of Aden and several other southern territories, leading to an increase of the level of violence in Aden, Lahij, Abyan, and Shabwah governorates as STC and ROYG-aligned forces continued to contest control over southern Yemen. In October 2019, Saudi forces replaced UAE forces in Aden and were seeking to establish security conditions to enable the return of the government to its temporary capital.  

The Houthis have frequently encouraged protests in Sana’a against the Saudi-led coalition, and, in some cases, at UN offices and those of other international non-government organizations. All governorates of Yemen have witnessed violence due to conflicts between the Houthis, tribal militias, government forces, and a range of non-state actors, including AQAP and ISIS.  Review OSAC’s report, Surviving a Protest.

Religious/Ethnic Violence

Religious violence occurs in all areas of Yemen. In September 2018, a Houthi-controlled court in Sana’a charged more than 20 Baha’is with apostasy and espionage.  According to media reports, Houthi authorities modified the University of Sana’a student and faculty identification cards to include the Houthi flag and slogan “Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse the Jews, Victory to Islam.” Sectarian polarization stimulated by the war with the Zaydi Houthis attracted recruits to AQAP; the estimated number of AQAP operatives inside the country is now between 6,000 and 7,000. In January 2018, Khaled Batarfi, a senior AQAP leader, recorded a video calling for knife and vehicle attacks against Jews in response to the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. According to media reports, unknown gunmen killed 27 Muslim clerics in Aden between 2016 and 2018. Review OSAC’s report, Freedom to Practice, and the State Department’s webpage on security for faith-based travelers.

According to UN data, as of September 2019, there were 3.6 million internally displaced persons in Yemen and 1.2 million IDP returnees. Over 350,000 refugees from Yemen had arrived in neighboring countries as of August 2019, according to the UNHCR. The total number of refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen was 276,134, most (91%) of whom came from Somalia to Yemen, despite the conflict.

Post-specific Concerns

Environmental Hazards

Roads are hazardous during rainy seasons due to a lack of adequate drainage. Flash floods pose a significant safety concern and may occur with little or no warning, even in Sana’a. There are sandstorms and dust storms in summer.

Yemen has limited volcanic activity; Jebel at Tair (Jabal al-Tair, Jebel Teir, Jabal al-Tayr, Jazirat at-Tair) (244 m), which forms an island in the Red Sea, erupted in 2007 after awakening from dormancy; other historically active volcanoes include Harra of Arhab, Harras of Dhamar, Harra es-Sawad, and Jebel Zubair, although many of these have not erupted in over a century

Critical Infrastructure

Power outages and spikes are common. Several regions possess little to no Internet coverage and sporadic electricity availability. Roadways and airports have suffered damage from the ongoing conflict.

Many international telecommunication and cellular providers do not have coverage in Yemen. Telecommunications services are vital but disrupted. Rebels often deliberately target mobile towers, and maintenance is dangerous to staff. Aid organization rely on satellite and radio communications. There is a scarcity of telecommunications equipment in rural areas. Review OSAC’s reports, Cybersecurity Basics, Best Practices for Maximizing Security on Public Wi-Fi, Traveling with Mobile Devices: Trends & Best Practices, and Satellite Phones: Critical or Contraband?.

Economic Concerns 

Yemen is a member of the major treaties administered by the World Intellectual Property Organization, having acceded to the Berne Convention on Copyright in 2008, to the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property in 2007 and the WIPO convention in 1979. However, due to the current conflict and limited government control over state institutions, authorities do not enforce intellectual property rights (IPR) effectively. The Ministry of Industry and Trading’s opening of a second IP office in Aden in 2018 independent of the Houthi-controlled IP office in Sana’a raised rights holder concerns that they would have to file duplicate trademark applications with both registries, and that third parties could use the opportunity to register duplicate trademarks in bad faith. 

Conflict has crippled Yemen’s economy and led to frequent volatility in exchange rate and prices. Due to the limited penetration of the formal banking sector, many exchange transactions proceed through unregulated, private money exchange or black-market channels. International Monetary Fund reports highlight gaps in the Central Bank of Yemen’s (CBY) supervisory capacity over the entire financial system, including compliance with anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) standards. Houthi-controlled authorities in Sana’a have arbitrarily shut down exchange businesses and seized new Yemeni Rial (YER) banknotes printed by the CBY in Aden, while the inferior quality of some CBY-printed notes has enabled widespread counterfeiting. Reports from both Sana’a and Aden indicate that a range of criminal groups engage in the distribution of counterfeit YER notes and counterfeit foreign currency.  

A number of Yemeni individuals and entities are currently sanctioned under the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Yemen Sanctions Program and other authorities. Check the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list prior to undertaking business with any Yemeni individuals or entities. 

Privacy rights face routine and arbitrary infringement throughout the country. Houthi security actors search homes and private offices, monitor telephone calls, read personal mail and email, and otherwise intrude into personal matters without legally issued warrants or judicial supervision. The law requires that the attorney general personally authorize telephone call monitoring and reading of personal mail and email, but there is no indication the law is followed in practice. There have been notable cases of Houthi intrusion into cyberspace. The Houthi-controlled Public Telecommunications Corporation systematically blocks user access to websites and internet domains it deems dangerous to the rebel actors’ political agenda.

Personal Identity Concerns

Women face deeply entrenched discrimination in both law and practice in all aspects of their lives. Mechanisms to enforce equal protection are weak, and the government does not implement them effectively. Women in custody disputes in Yemen will not enjoy the same rights that they do in the United States, as Yemeni law often does not work in favor of the mother. Parents should also note that Yemen might not enforce U.S. custody orders. U.S. citizen women married to Yemeni men should be aware that their children may not be able to depart Yemen. In many instances, women must obtain permission from their husbands to obtain an exit visa. They also may not be able to take their children out of Yemen without the permission of the father, regardless of who has legal custody. Authorities may not recognize U.S. divorce decrees, especially if the marriage took place in Yemen. Some U.S. citizen women who have married in Yemen and divorced in the United States have been prevented from departing Yemen by their ex-husbands.

The law states that authorities should execute a man if convicted of killing a woman. The penal code, however, allows leniency for persons guilty of committing an “honor” killing or violently assaulting or killing a woman for perceived “immodest” or “defiant” behavior. The law does not address other types of gender-based abuse, such as forced isolation, imprisonment, and early and forced marriage. Victims rarely report domestic abuse to police, and criminal proceedings in cases of domestic abuse are rare. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for female travelers.

The penal code criminalizes consensual same-sex sexual conduct, with the death penalty as a sanction under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law. However, there have been no known executions of LGBTI+ persons in more than a decade. The government does not consider violence or discrimination against LGBTI+ persons “relevant” for official reporting. Due to the illegality of and possible severe punishment for consensual same-sex sexual conduct, few LGBTI+ persons are open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Individuals known or suspected of being LGBTI+ face discrimination. There are no LGBTI+ organizations. The government blocks access to internet sites containing LGBTI-related content. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for LGBTI+ travelers.

Several laws mandate the rights and care of persons with disabilities, but the government does not effectively enforce them. The law permits persons with disabilities to exercise the same rights as persons without disabilities, but this does not happen in practice. Social stigma and official indifference are obstacles to implementation. Although the law mandates that new buildings have access for persons with disabilities, compliance is poor. Review the State Department’s webpage on security for travelers with disabilities.

Drug-related Crime

Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs can lead to immediate arrest and detention. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Yemen are severe, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and heavy fines. The use of the mild stimulant "qat” or “khat" is legal and common in Yemen, but it is illegal in many other countries, including the United States. Do not attempt to bring qat back to the United States; the penalties for trafficking qat include heavy fines and possible imprisonment.

Kidnapping Threat

Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, rebel groups in Sana’a have systematically and unlawfully detained U.S. citizens. Reports indicate that criminals target U.S. citizens by virtue of their citizenship, regardless of the amount of time they have spent in Yemen, their established connections with rebel groups, or their connections with local businesses or humanitarian organizations aimed at providing relief to those in need. During their detentions, which in some cases have lasted well over a year, U.S. citizens have not been able to contact their families or receive U.S. consular visits or those from international humanitarian organizations. U.S. government directly assistance to U.S. citizens in detention is severely limited, since there is no U.S. diplomatic presence in Yemen following the Houthi rebel takeover of Sana’a.

In addition to the threat of detention by rebel groups, there continue to be other risks due to the ongoing conflict and heightened terrorist activity, including kidnappings for ransom. Review OSAC’s report, Kidnapping: The Basics.

Other Security Considerations 

Other potential hazards to travelers include land mines and unexploded ordnance from the 1994 civil war and other conflicts. This is of particular concern in the vicinity of Hudaydah, the six southern provinces and in the northern highlands. Most minefields have been identified and cordoned off, but there are still undetected and unidentified minefields in Yemen. 

The government is unable to take any substantive steps to protect journalists from violence and harassment. Pro-government popular resistance forces, Houthis, and tribal militias are responsible for a range of abuses against media outlets. Amnesty International reports the Houthis have detained at least ten journalists since 2015 on false charges, subjecting them to torture and other forms of abuse. The UN Group of Experts reported 40 cases of women human rights defenders, journalists, and activists facing “gender-based persecution” in 2019, which included threats from all sides of the conflict.

Photography of military installations, including airports, equipment, or troops is illegal. In the past, such photography has led to the arrest of U.S. citizens. Military sites are not always obvious. If in doubt, ask specific permission from authorities. Review OSAC’s report, Picture This: Dos and Don’ts for Photography.

Read the State Department’s webpage on customs and import restrictions for information on what you cannot take into or out of other countries.

Police Response

The emergency line in Yemen is 199; the service is unreliable, and the operators do not speak English. Police stations are clearly identified with signs. Police officers on foot and in locations throughout Sana’a are also easy to find; however, it is very rare to find a police officer who can speak English. 

Police and security units currently fall under the Interior Ministry or the Houthis’ Revolutionary Committee. The police and security agencies most people will encounter include the Special Security Forces (SSF) and other security groups administrated by the Houthis’ Revolutionary Committee, which principally patrol and staff checkpoints; the Emergency Police (Najda); and the General Police, which work in police stations and usually respond to reports of general criminal activities. However, police may not provide security support unless the victim pays them. 

Police and military checkpoints –official and unofficial - are common and may appear with little or no advance notice. Those staffing checking points generally do not wear police uniforms, which makes it difficult to recognize and differentiate police checkpoints from military or local tribal checkpoints. Sana’a and other Houthi-controlled cities are not safe for foreigners. Those manning checkpoints will likely stop foreigners, interrogate and possibly arrest them, and take them to the nearest police station. Yemenis who also possess any other foreign citizenship must carry their National Yemeni IDs to avoid targeting at checkpoints.

Medical Emergencies

The emergency line in Yemen is 199; the service is unreliable, and the operators do not speak English. Due to the lack of reliable street addresses, emergency callers should provide directions based on prominent landmarks and prepare to meet the ambulance upon arrival. Prepare directions and keep them by the phone. If you can safely transport the patient to the hospital by private vehicle, you may avoid a potentially long wait for an ambulance. It is important to know the quickest and shortest routes to the main emergency facilities throughout the city. Due to the ongoing civil unrest, medical facilities in Sana’a, Aden, and elsewhere in the country may not be readily available.

There are various medical clinics and hospitals throughout Sanaa, but not all facilities offer full medical services, and emergency care is limited. Medical care outside Sana’a is even more limited.   

A male relative’s consent is often required before a woman can be admitted to a hospital, creating significant problems in a humanitarian context in which the men of the household are absent or dead.

For non-life-threatening emergencies or routine consultations, several private medical centers and medical providers are available. Identify and select a primary care physician and a pediatrician if required. Foreigners residing or traveling in Sana’a frequented the following medical service providers in the past, though the numbers of foreigners in Sana’a has reduced significantly since the conflict began:

  • University of Science and Technology Hospital, Across from the rear gate of Sana’a University, 60th Street, +967 1 500 000 
  • Modern German Hospital, Taiz Street before Al-steen crossing; in front of Al-Tadhamon Islamic Bank, +967 1 600 000
  • Saudi German Hospital, 60th Street, before the crossing of AlJammana, +967 1 313 333 
  • Azal Hospital, 60th Street, next to Mathbah Bridge, +967 1 200 000 
  • Dr. Abdulkadir Al-Mutawakil Hospital, Baghdad Street, next to Future University, +967 1 208 080 
  • Modern European Hospital, 60th Street, in front of Presidential Palace, +967 1 577 777 
  • Yemen German Hospital, Al-Mesbahi Cross, in front of Lulat Haddah Hotel, Hadda Street, +967 1 418 000 
  • Lebanon Heart Hospital, 14 October Square, Haddah, +967 1 425 386 
  • Al-Thawrah General Hospital, Khawlan Street, In front of Bab AlSalam, +967 1 246 966 to 8 / 246 971 to 7 / 246 983 

The U.S. Department of State strongly recommends purchasing international health insurance before traveling internationally. Review the State Department’s webpage on insurance overseas.

Active cholera transmission is widespread in Yemen. Cholera is rare in travelers but can be severe. Certain factors may increase the risk of getting cholera or having severe disease (more information). Avoiding unsafe food and water and washing your hands can also help prevent cholera.

Avoid mosquito bites to prevent malaria. Consider taking prescription medicine before, during, and after travel to prevent malaria, depending on travel plans such as where you are going, when you are traveling, and if you are spending a lot of time outdoors or sleeping outside. All areas below 2,000 m (6,562 ft) in altitude have risk of malaria, though there is none in Sana’a. See more detailed information from the CDC about malaria in Yemen.

Rabies can be found in dogs, bats, and other mammals in Yemen

The CDC offers additional information on vaccines and health guidance for Yemen.

Review OSAC’s reports, The Healthy Way, Traveling with Medication, I’m Drinking What in My Water?, Shaken: The Don’ts of Alcohol Abroad, Health 101: How to Prepare for Travel, and Fire Safety Abroad.

OSAC Country Council Information

There is no Country Council in Sana’a. Interested private-sector security managers should contact OSAC’s Middle East & North Africa team for more information.

U.S. Embassy Contact Information

U.S. Embassy Sanaa suspended operations in 2015 due to the ongoing civil conflict. The Yemen Affairs Unit (YAU), provisionally resident at U.S. Embassy Riyadh, continues U.S. diplomatic work on Yemen.

Collector Road M, Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter. P.O. Box 94309, Riyadh 11693 KSA.

Hours of Operation: 0800-1700, Sunday-Thursday

Website: https://ye.usembassy.gov/

Embassy Operator: +966 (11) 488-3800

State Department Emergency Line: +1-202-501-4444

Helpful Information

Before you travel, consider the following resources:

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