Yemen: Military service; reported cases of forced recruitment and conscription by government authorities and armed groups, including by Al-Qaeda, in regions other than those under Houthi control (2015-December 2017) [YEM106027.FE]

Research Directorate, Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, Ottawa

1. Overview

According to sources, Houthis took control of the capital, Sanaa, in September 2014 (Human Rights Watch 22 June 2017; UN 20 Apr. 2016, para. 164; Popp June 2015, 2). In 2015, President Hadi declared the port city of Aden [in southern Yemen] the temporary capital (ECFR n.d.a; Popp June 2015, 3). In its annual report on Yemen, published in February 2017, Amnesty International reports that the Hadi government controls southern parts of Yemen, including the governorates of Lahj and Aden (Amnesty International 22 Feb. 2017).

A report by Wolfgang Gressmann, “an independent consultant specialised in humanitarian strategy development, programme management and research” (Wolfgang Gressmann n.d.) published by Oxfam Great Britain, CARE International and the Gender Standby Capacity Project (GenCap) [1] reports “widespread recruitment of children and young men” in Yemen by armed groups (Gressmann Nov. 2016, 12, 30). Similarly, in correspondence with the Research Directorate, a professor in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Tampere in Finland, whose research focuses on Yemen, explained that young men are “especially” targeted for military recruitment (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). According to a response plan for refugees and migrants in relation to the situation in Yemen, prepared by the UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), most Yemenis arriving in Djibouti are men who say they fled Yemen for security reasons or to avoid forced recruitment (UN 14 Dec. 2015, 19).

In a fact sheet on Yemen, the UNHCR referred to cases of forced recruitment of foreign nationals, including asylum seekers (UN Feb. 2016, 1). According to the same source, the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied any involvement of the authorities in forced recruitment of foreigners (UN Feb. 2016, 1).

In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a retired academic and diplomat with many years of experience in Yemen noted that the main pressure to join militias comes from family, the tribe or the local community, rather than the threat of force or legal consequences (Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017). The Professor similarly indicated that in regions where armed groups are “popular,” it is difficult for young men to refuse to be recruited or to take up arms (Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

In a telephone interview with the Research Directorate, a researcher on Yemen, who has contributed to various books on Yemen, explained that forced recruitment is “not generally an issue” in Yemen, since it is “economic circumstances that drive people to join various [armed] groups” (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017). Wolfgang Gressmann’s report notes that, in the absence of employment for young people, joining an armed group as a source of income is becoming more attractive to youth (Gressmann Nov. 2016, 12). According to the former academic, “access to pay (occasionally), food and fuel” is the main incentive for joining a militia, and secondarily, “help[ing] to defend one’s home area from outsiders, including government forces” (Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017). The Professor pointed out that armed groups are able to recruit because people are hungry, “[f]ood is not coming in, and people are desperate”; armed groups are the only ones who can pay their fighters, as even the national army is unable to pay (Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

2. Recruitment of Child Soldiers

According to sources, parties involved in the armed conflict in Yemen are using child soldiers (UN 28 Feb. 2017; Human Rights Watch 12 Jan. 2017; Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017). According to the US Department of State’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016, despite a minimum age of 18 for military service in Yemen, “[n]early one-third of the combatants” are child soldiers (US 3 Mar. 2017, 17). According to sources, in May 2014, the government signed a UN plan to end the use of child soldiers, but did not implement measures to end the practice (US June 2017, 435; Human Rights Watch 12 Jan. 2017). In a 2016 report on the situation of children in armed conflicts, the UN reports that in 2015, recruitment of children by armed groups increased fivefold and that the Houthis were responsible for 72 percent of the 762 verified cases of recruitment of children (UN 20 Apr. 2016, para. 165). According to the same source, [UN English version] “[a] shift was observed from largely voluntary enlistment towards forced or involuntary recruitment through coercion, including through the provision of misleading information or incentives” (UN 20 Apr. 2016, para. 165). For further information on the Houthis, see Response to Information Request YEM105985 of October 2017.

According to a 2017 article published by the UN News Centre, the UN verified the recruitment of 1,476 boys between 26 March 2015 and 31 January 2017, and added that the numbers are likely much higher, “'as most families are not willing to talk about the recruitment of their children, for fear of reprisals'” (UN 28 Feb. 2017). The same source quotes an Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) spokesperson as saying “'[c]hildren under the age of 18 often join the fighting after either being misled or attracted by promises of financial rewards or social status'” (UN 28 Feb. 2017). The same source reports that, according to the spokesperson, many children “'are then quickly sent to the front lines of the conflict or tasked with manning checkpoints'” (UN 28 Feb. 2017).

A 2017 report on human trafficking published by the US Department of State indicates that armed boys, “as young as 10 years old, are believed to have worked for [...] government forces” (US 27 June 2017, 436). According to the same source, the majority of incidents of military recruitment of children were attributed to the Houthis, followed by the Yemeni Armed Forces and “Popular Committees” [2] (US 27 June 2017, 436). According to the 2016 UN report, 15 percent of military recruitment of children in 2015 was attributed to pro-government popular committees (UN 20 Apr. 2016, para. 165).

3. Military Service in Yemen

Sources report that there is no conscription in Yemen and that 18 is the minimum age for voluntary service (Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017; US 14 Nov. 2017). According to the former academic, there was a policy in place in Yemen a few years ago “to recruit up to 70,000 additional members of the armed forces, mainly as a way of providing employment and getting people off the streets” (Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017).

Sources report not being aware of forced recruitment by Hadi government forces (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017; Researcher 19 Nov. 2017). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, a researcher at the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies (CNMS) at the Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany, stated that many young men join the government’s armed forces because of the collapse of Yemen’s economy, the lack of jobs or the fact that they are not being paid; these young men may be from any socio-economic group, but are mostly 20 to 40 years old (Researcher 19 Nov. 2017). The other researcher on Yemen indicated that the regions controlled by the Hadi government are fragmented into “a series of local organizations and militias” and that the arrangement in each region varies (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017). The same source stated that in the context of the economic situation and humanitarian problems in Yemen, joining a militia “may become an attractive option for desperate people” (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017).

4. Forced Recruitment by Armed Groups
4.1 Al-Qaeda

According to sources, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is active in Yemen (Amnesty International 22 Feb. 2017; International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 1; ECFR n.d.a) and controls parts of southern Yemen (ECFR n.d.a; Amnesty International 22 Feb. 2017). Sources report that AQAP has a presence in the region of Hadramawt (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017; 9; ECFR n.d.a). According to sources, AQAP withdrew from the city of Mukalla in April 2016 (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 9; Reuters 30 Apr. 2016). According to Agence France-Presse (AFP), in October 2017, Al-Qaeda also lost [translation] “one of its main strongholds,” Al-Mahfad, in southern Yemen (AFP 29 Oct. 2017).

According to a 2017 report on Al-Qaeda’s expansion in Yemen published by the International Crisis Group, AQAP’s accumulated revenues enabled it in particular to attract recruits; in 2011, the armed group paid its fighters a salary higher than that of government soldiers (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 17). Similarly, according to the Professor, armed jihadist groups have a great deal of money to pay recruits good salaries (Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

According to sources, AQAP uses propaganda and the media (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 6-7; CFR 19 June 2015) for recruitment (CFR 19 June 2015). According to International Crisis Group, “growing sectarian sentiment has provided political/social space for groups such as AQAP [...] to recruit” (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 13). According to the researcher on Yemen, there are two reasons someone would join Al-Qaeda: the ideology or because the armed group pays its fighters (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017).

The Professor stated that much of the violence in southern Yemen is generated by jihadist groups and that these groups, including Al-Qaeda, are “more likely to engage in forced recruitment” (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). The same source noted that there are reports of harassment by Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). According to the Professor, when they take over towns and villages, people can run into problems if they do not cooperate; their house may be occupied or their property stolen (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). Regarding pressure tactics used by Al-Qaeda, the Professor stated that in some places, Al-Qaeda has implemented “local governance,” including courts that impose “very harsh sentences,” including causing injuries (Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

According to US Country Reports 2016, AQAP increased its recruitment, training and deployment of children as participants in the conflict in 2016 (US 3 Mar. 2017, 17). The same source states that the UN reported in April 2016 that 9 percent of incidents of recruitment of boys was attributed to AQAP (US 3 Mar. 2017, 17-18).

4.2 Ansar al-Sharia

According to International Crisis Group, AQAP created Ansar al-Sharia in 2011 to widen its domestic appeal and separate itself from its “international brand” (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 6). Sources report that Ansar al-Sharia means “'Supporters of Islamic Law'” (ECFR n.d.a; International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 6). According to International Crisis Group, in cities it controls, AQAP “has presented itself as a viable and indeed better alternative to the state by providing more reliable services and dispute adjudication” (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 11). The Professor noted that Ansar al-Sharia, a local group in Abyan, “sometimes” works with Al-Qaeda (Professor 24 Nov. 2017).

International Crisis Group reports that members joining Ansar al-Sharia are not required to “bind themselves to AQAP and its ideology through a formal pledge of allegiance” (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 14). The same source quotes a politician from Abyan interviewed in September 2016 as stating that “[m]ost Ansar [al-Sharia] followers in Abyan are local. Many are young men who are very poor with no prospects” (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 27).

4.3 Southern Movement [Southern Resistance, Hirak]

For information on the Southern Movement in Yemen, see Response to Information Request YEM104475 of June 2013.

According to sources, the Southern Movement is calling for independence (Researcher 19 Nov. 2017; Popp June 2015, 2; Professor 29 Nov. 2017). According to International Crisis Group, the Southern Movement consists of local residents taking up arms to defend themselves, as well as former soldiers of the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 12). The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an international think tank conducting “independent research” and promoting “informed debate about Europe’s role in the world” (ECFR n.d.b), reports, in an article on Yemen, that fighters allied to the Southern Movement “are now the dominant force in much of the south” (ECFR n.d.a). The Professor reports that the military branch of the Southern Movement is called “Muqawwama” or “popular resistance” (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). The researcher on Yemen states that the Southern Movement is “very scattered” and includes tribal and local militias (Researcher 21 Nov. 2017). However, according to the researcher from the Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies in Germany, the Southern Movement is an unarmed social and political movement (Researcher 19 Nov. 2017). According to sources, the Southern Movement does not engage in military recruitment (Professor 29 Nov. 2017; Researcher 19 Nov. 2017). Sources report that the Southern Movement is an ally of the Hadi government (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017; 12; Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

4.4 Other Armed Groups

According to sources, Islamic State [Daesh] is present in Yemen (Amnesty International 22 Feb. 2017; International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 1) and has committed attacks in Aden and Mukalla, in particular against government forces and officials (Amnesty International 22 Feb. 2017). International Crisis Group states that this armed group has been less successful in recruiting (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, i).

The Professor explained that Salafist groups recruit locally, but are formed of a core group of people originally from other provinces or from outside Yemen (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). According to the same source, these groups are more likely to harass people to join militias (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). International Crisis Group states that Salafi militias are an increasingly important part of Yemen’s Sunni militant milieu (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 20).

According to sources, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) control armed forces in southern Yemen, including the “Security Belt Force” and the “Hadhrami Elite Force” (YPP 24 Nov. 2017; Human Rights Watch 22 June 2017). In correspondence with the Research Directorate, the Executive Director of the Yemen Peace Project (YPP), an organization “dedicated to supporting Yemeni individuals and organizations working to create positive change” and that works to “increase[e] understanding of Yemen in the wider world” (YPP n.d.), explained that he has been told that these armed groups are engaging in forced recruitment and that they are imprisoning people who refuse to join (YPP 24 Nov. 2017). Human Rights Watch states that the Security Belt Force operates in Aden, Lahj and Abyan, and that the Hadhrami Elite Force is operating in Hadramawt (Human Rights Watch 22 June 2017). According to the same source, these forces “have used excessive force during arrests and raids, detained family members of wanted suspects to pressure them to ‘voluntarily’ turn themselves in, arbitrarily arrested and detained men and boys, [...] and forcibly disappeared dozens” (Human Rights Watch 22 June 2017).

5. State Protection

According to the former academic, “[i]n the absence of any real government in Yemen, there is no state protection against forced recruitment (if it is happening)” (Former Academic 24 Nov. 2017). The Professor stated that no state protection exists (Professor 29 Nov. 2017). According to the same source, in a war situation, “[p]eople rely on other networks, like neighborhoods” (Professor 29 Nov. 2017).

This Response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the Research Directorate within time constraints. This Response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim for refugee protection. Please find below the list of sources consulted in researching this Information Request.


[1] CARE International is “a global confederation of 14 member organisations working together to end poverty” (Gressmann Nov. 2016, 51). GenCap is an initiative created in 2007 in collaboration with the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) seeking to “ensure the distinct needs of women, girls, boys and men of all ages and backgrounds, are taken into account in humanitarian action at global, regional, and country levels” (UN n.d.).

[2] In an article published in 2014 by the Middle East Institute (MEI), an institution that has been based in Washington since 1946 and is dedicated to the study of the Middle East (MEI n.d.a), and written by Nadwa Al-Dawsari, a Yemeni expert specializing, among other things, in conflicts and tribes (MEI n.d.b), Popular Committees in Yemen are local armed resistance groups (MEI 5 Mar. 2014). The same source reports that they are an indigenous movement, that they do not represent any particular tribes, and that they are hybrid ad hoc entities that rose up in response to the deteriorating security situation (MEI 5 Mar. 2014). International Crisis Group states that Popular Committees, although fighting on the same side as government forces, are mostly southern secessionists and openly opposed Hadi (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 7). The same source explains that by 2014, Houthis also used the name “Popular Committee” for their militias (International Crisis Group 2 Feb. 2017, 7).


Agence France-Presse (AFP). 29 October 2017. “Des troupes d’élite s’emparent d’un important fief d’Al-Qaïda.” [Accessed 5 Dec. 2017]

Amnesty International. 22 February 2017. “Yémen.” Rapport 2016/2017. [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017]

Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). 19 June 2015. Mohammed Sergie. “Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).” [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). N.d.a. Adam Baron. “Mapping the Yemen Conflict.” [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017]

European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). N.d.b. “About ECFR.” [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017]

Former Academic. 24 November 2017. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Gressmann, Wolfgang. November 2016. Conflict and Gender Relations in Yemen. [Accessed 22 Nov. 2017]

Gressmann, Wolfgang. N.d. “Curriculum Vitae.” [Accessed 5 Dec. 2017]

Human Rights Watch. 22 June 2017. “Yemen: UAE Backs Abusive Local Forces.” [Accessed 24 Nov. 2017]

Human Rights Watch. 12 January 2017. “Yémen.” Rapport mondial 2017. [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017]

International Crisis Group. 2 February 2017. Yemen’ s Al-Qaeda: Expanding the Base. [Accessed 17 Nov. 2017]

Middle East Institute (MEI). 5 March 2014. Nadwa Al-Dawsari. “The Popular Committees of Abyan, Yemen: A Necessary Evil or an Opportunity for Security Reform?” [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017]

Middle East Institute (MEI). N.d.a. “Our Mission.” [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017]

Middle East Institute (MEI). N.d.b. “Nadwa Al-Dawsari.” [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017]

Popp, Roland. June 2015. “War in Yemen: Revolution and Saudi Intervention.” CSS Analyses in Security Policy. No. 175. [Accessed 20 Nov. 2017]

Professor, University of Tampere, Finland. 29 November 2017. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Researcher, Center for Near and Middle Eastern Studies, Philipps-University of Marburg, Germany. 19 November 2017. Correspondence with the Research Directorate.

Researcher on Yemen. 21 November 2017. Telephone interview with the Research Directorate.

Reuters. 30 April 2016. “Al Qaeda in Yemen Confirms Retreat from Port City of Mukalla.” [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017]

United Nations (UN). 28 February 2017. United Nations News Centre. “Yemen: UN Verifies Nearly 1,500 Boys Recruited for Use in Armed Conflict.” [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

United Nations (UN). 20 April 2016. General Assembly and Security Council. Le sort des enfants en temps de conflit armé. Rapport du Secrétaire général. (A/70/836-S/2016/360) [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

United Nations (UN). 14 December 2015. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Organization for Migration (IOM). Yemen Situation: Regional Refugee and Migrant Response Plan. [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

United Nations (UN). February 2016. Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Yemen February 2016 Factsheet. [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

United Nations (UN). N.d. Humanitarian Response. “GenCap - Who We Are.” [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017]

United States (US). 14 November 2017. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). “Yemen.” The World Factbook. [Accessed 4 Dec. 2017]

United States (US). 27 June 2017. Department of State. “Yemen.” 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report. [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

United States (US). 3 March 2017. Department of State. “Yemen.” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2016. [Accessed 21 Nov. 2017]

The Yemen Peace Project (YPP). 24 November 2017. Correspondence sent to the Research Directorate by an Executive Director.

The Yemen Peace Project (YPP). N.d. “About the YPP.” [Accessed 28 Nov. 2017]

Additional Sources Consulted

Oral sources: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies; Human Rights Watch; Mwatana Organization for Human Rights; researchers specialized in Yemen and the conflict in Yemen; SAM for Rights and Liberties.

Internet sites, including: BBC; Gulf Centre for Human Rights; Minority Rights Group International; Le Point; The Yemen Times.

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