A diaspora denied: Impediments to Yemeni mobilization for relief and reconstruction at home

Dana M. Moss, University of Pittsburgh

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 29,Politics, Governance, and Reconstruction in Yemen.” 

Yemenis abroad have long channeled resources to their families at home, and their remittances in the current war have provided a lifeline to many Yemenis trapped in hellish conditions.[1] But beyond sending cash to kin, diasporas who pool resources can help home-country populations ravaged by violence, hunger, and disease by providing emergency supplies and rebuilding vital infrastructure. Existing studies argue that diaspora can play an important role in relief and reconstruction in their war-torn homelands for several reasons. First, diaspora members use their cross-border network ties as conduits for channeling aid across borders. Second, emigrants who have escaped authoritarian states and settled in democracies gain “voice” and opportunities to mobilize their communities and lobby for support.[2] Third, times of extreme crisis like the one facing Yemen today invoke a sense of collective solidarity and corresponding motivations among diasporas to mobilize for their compatriots at home.

My research on Yemeni mobilization in the United States and Great Britain, however, finds that these communities hardly resemble the long-distance interventionists depicted in prior studies.[3] Instead, I have found that the Yemeni diaspora has only rarely engaged in collective efforts to channel aid homeward or to advocate for relief in the current war. The two organizations in the U.S. that I know of, for example, depend on overworked volunteers – including women juggling competing responsibilities of work, schooling, and family – and donations coming at a mere trickle. Given the scale of suffering on the ground, these efforts are both vital and admirable; however, they represent only a tiny fraction of what the diaspora could contribute under different circumstances. So what is keeping the diaspora from mobilizing en masse to fund relief and reconstruction? I find that three broad obstacles deter the mobilization potential of Yemeni activists and community members: 1) violence by fighting forces in Yemen; 2) repressive threats in their host-countries; and 3) intra-community division and mistrust. Below, I elaborate on these obstacles and explain why barriers are likely to persist even as needs in Yemen grow increasingly dire by the day.

Violent repression at home

Many scholars assume that diaspora resources flow freely from the developed world to under-resourced states because of the existence of network ties.[4] However, this assumption overlooks barriers to aid flows and cross-border linkages imposed by warring parties. In Yemen, relief has been hampered by the efforts of internal and external antagonists to win the war through mass violence, including a siege-and-starve campaign spearheaded by Saudi Arabia. Activists from U.S. and Britain attested in interviews with me in 2012 that transferring humanitarian supplies homeward was hugely difficult before the war due to Yemen’s weak infrastructure and corruption. Now, the blockade, diversion, and appropriation of aid by warring factions has made the transfer of supplies such as hospital equipment and food largely impossible. Though unfolding in blatant violation of international law, belligerent-imposed blockades on all sides are succeeding in isolating needy populations from their transnational networks of support. Tragically, this situation is unlikely to change unless countries like the U.S. and the U.K. exert strong political pressure on states such as Saudi Arabia to allow outside aid to be delivered.

These obstacles are also occurring in tandem with mass violence and the imposition of hostile conditions for aid work inside of Yemen. Activists, organizers, and critics of competing powers have fled or been killed and imprisoned. And though many truly heroic Yemenis are continuing to serve their communities against all odds, the decimation of Yemen’s civil society means that those abroad largely lack the requisite partnerships with Yemeni activists on the ground who could receive and distribute donations. Without these partnerships, the diaspora’s resources will remain abroad when they are most needed at home.

Scrutiny and surveillance in the host-country

Diasporas are thought to be well advantaged to mobilize after settling in democratic states and gaining the requisite rights for collective action. Yet researchers often overlook how political conditions in diasporas’ places-of-residence restrict their collective action potential. In the U.S. in particular, diasporas’ cross-border ties are used as evidence of their supposed threats to national security and so-called inabilities to assimilate into American society.[5] The September 11 attacks also created chilling effects on Yemeni transnational activism, particularly in well-resourced communities such as those in New York City. When I interviewed Yemeni activists there in 2012, organizers noted that their fellow community members were nervous about remitting aid to the 2011 revolution for fear that humanitarian donations would be mistaken as support for terrorism. Members of the diaspora know all too well that even those Yemenis with U.S. citizenship can have their lives and livelihoods destroyed over these accusations in the post-9/11 security climate.

The election of Donald Trump in 2016 has since exacerbated fears and the sense of threat facing the Yemeni diaspora, and justifiably so. The community has been targeted by the Trump administration’s attempts to impose a “Muslim Ban” and block certain national groups from entering the U.S. Many have also been cut off from their loved ones due to a de facto travel ban that currently prevents Yemenis from obtaining visas. Escalated surveillance of and discrimination against the diaspora will continue to deter their mobilization for relief at home so as long as Yemenis, and even Yemeni-American citizens, are wrongfully treated as a fifth column in the war against Islamist extremism. In all, the political freedoms gained by diasporas for home-country mobilization are far from guaranteed. As the domestic rights of minority groups are curtailed in the name of fighting terrorism abroad, so too will Yemenis’ collective abilities and willingness to resource relief efforts across borders be depressed in tandem.

Intra-community conflicts

Researchers have cast diasporas as “long-distance nationalists”[6] with the solidarity needed to work collectively for political causes at home, but this assumption presumes that diasporas have shared interests and identities based on common national origins. On the contrary, diasporas are, in fact, heterogeneous groups containing multiple identities and competing political views, and the Yemeni diaspora is no exception. To that end, intra-community diversity stemming from regional, religious, and political divides has led to tensions within the diaspora that have depressed collective action. During the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, for example, conflicts surged between the South Yemeni diaspora supportive of secession and pro-unity Yemenis abroad. Activists on each side accused the other of attempting to coopt the revolution for their own purposes. As the community clashed over who had the right to speak for the home-country, activists reported being slandered by their fellow diaspora members and faced significant challenges in raising funds for charity.

Intra-community conflicts continue to dampen the diaspora’s response to the war today because aid is far from a politically neutral issue. Currently, Yemenis abroad appear to agree that the humanitarian crisis needs to be addressed at once. Yet the question of how remains highly divisive and is deterring a collective response. Some in the diaspora support Saudi-led intervention because they view it as the only way to rid Yemen of a brutal Houthi occupation. Others point to Saudi and UAE war crimes as indicative of the need to cease international intervention immediately. Meanwhile, South Yemenis hold a range of views on both local and foreign factions, particularly as the UAE backs leaders of the secession movement. Because the war is exacerbating ethnic, religious, and regional divides, many in the diaspora are concerned about where humanitarian aid is being channeled and to whom. As I discovered in interviews with diaspora activists in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, aid that is not going to a diaspora member’s particular home-region or hometown is often seen as biased in favor of advantaged populations and is therefore unworthy of support. In all, Yemeni communities remain deeply divided about who has the right to speak and mobilize for the relief effort and where aid should be directed. These divides continue to render relief a contentious issue.

The future of relief and reconstruction for the diaspora

As Yemen endures an unfathomable degree of suffering, it is clear that help from the diaspora is badly needed. Yet the obstacles that currently stand in their way are significant and are unlikely to change unless outside states and international institutions act decisively to end the war itself. And while it is too soon to tell what Yemen’s future will hold, the diaspora’s potential to help rebuild their homeland in the future is primed to face a similar set of challenges. If the country comes to be divided by Gulf powers in a neo-colonial fashion, all external aid will be regulated by highly repressive regimes and damage any future efforts to distribute resources in a fair and transparent fashion. If Yemeni immigrants’ host-country governments continue to treat the diaspora as a fifth column in the War on Terror and do not provide guidelines on how to channel relief homeward in a protected fashion, the community will remain deterred from pooling money for charitable and civic initiatives at home. And so long as the Yemeni community remains divided, activists will continue to face significant challenges in raising funds for collective causes. All of these challenges persist in a context in which the Yemeni community remains under threat and subjected to travel bans by the Trump administration. As such, both the war at home and discrimination abroad are working in tandem to deprive the diaspora from channeling life-saving resources to the neediest population in the world.

The Yemeni case also has implications for the study of diaspora politics, transnational activism, and post-war reconstruction. Most importantly, scholars should take into account the fact that diasporas are not the omnipotent interventionists that many assume. Despite the fact that diaspora communities are often socially and economically advantaged when compared to their counterparts at home, such advantages do not in-and-of-themselves render these groups potent sources of support. Instead, diasporas are entangled in a complex set of conditions largely outside their control; for Yemenis, overlapping sets of hostile conditions are trapping their resources abroad. While some volunteers and activists are continuing to fight tooth and nail to move aid into Yemen, this work remains exceptionally difficult. Under these circumstances, diaspora mobilization for relief and reconstruction has and will continue to be hindered, despite Yemen’s ever-growing need for aid.


[1] According to the World Bank, these remittances have increased drastically during the war, amounting to approximately 3.35 billion dollars in 2016 alone. See <https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/BX.TRF.PWKR.CD.DT?locations=YE>.

[2] Hirschman, Albert. 1978. “Exit, Voice, and the State.” World Politics 31: 90–107.

[3] Anderson, Benedict. 1998. The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. New York: Verso.

[4] See Faist (2000) and Waldinger (2015) for their overview and critiques of this perspective.

Faist,Thomas. 2000. “Transnationalization in International Migration: Implications for the Study of Citizenship and Culture.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 23(2):189-222.

Waldinger, Roger. 2015. The Cross-Border Connection: Immigrants, Emigrants, and Their Homelands. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[5] Nagel, C.R. 2002. “Geopolitics by Another Name: Immigration and the Politics of Assimilation.” Political Geography 21: 971-987.

[6] Anderson 1998.