They want out.

Photographer: Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images

Americans Trapped in Yemen? U.S. Says 'Good Luck'

Josh Rogin is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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The announced end of Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign in Yemen may provide a window for thousands of U.S. citizens to leave the war-torn nation. Yet the State Department shows no sign it will begin rescuing the thousands of Yemeni-Americans there, drawing ire from the Arab-American community.

For weeks, the Obama administration has maintained that using U.S. government resources to evacuate its citizens in the middle of the Yemeni crisis would be too dangerous for the U.S. personnel sent to help  as well as for the citizens themselves. Without any embassy or military presence inside Yemen, U.S. assistance for the thousands of Americans seeking to leave has amounted to giving them sporadic information, wishing them good luck, and dealing with them if and when they reach another shore, usually Djibouti in Africa.

QuickTake Yemen's Fault Lines

But now that the Saudi air campaign against the Houthi rebels will stop and at least a temporary cease-fire is pending, Arab-American leaders in Washington are renewing their call for the State Department to provide direct assistance to U.S. citizens trying to flee.

“We hope that with the pause in hostilities that there’s an opportunity to evacuate the U.S citizens still stuck in Yemen,” Abed Ayoub, national legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Coalition, told me Tuesday. “Now you don’t need a cease-fire. This is the clear opportunity to save these people’s lives.”

Several other governments have arranged evacuations for their citizens, and even aided Americans trying to flee Yemen. India alone rescued 4,500 people from Yemen this month, including some Americans. Ayoub said that the Russian Federation sent out a notice to U.S. citizens in Yemen this week offering to help evacuate them on Russian ships. Desperate Yemeni-Americans are taking any offer they can get to leave.

The number of Americans still in Yemen is unclear. A 2010 embassy inspection report placed the number of American citizens in the country at 55,000, but Ayoub said the State Department now believes there are between 4,000 and 5,000 remaining. It would not be new ground for the department, which led an evacuation of 15,000 U.S. citizens from Lebanon in the summer of 2006, with Pentagon assistance.

But the State Department won’t engage Arab-American leaders on the issue, and groups including the ADC, the Council on American Islamic Relations and Asian Americans Advancing Justice have taken matters into their own hands. They filed two lawsuits against the State and Defense Departments to compel them to get Americans out of Yemen. They also started a website, www.stuckinyemen.com, to collect information from stranded Americans and to help them find ways out. Ayoub said more than 600 people have registered through the site, but only a handful of those have successfully left.

A State Department official told me that the protection and safety of U.S. citizens are a top priority, and that the U.S. is sharing information with its citizens in Yemen about evacuation opportunities as they become aware of them. The official also said that rescuing them is dangerous because designating an evacuation point for a large group of U.S. citizens could put their safety and security at risk. 

Yet, the tone from White House and State Department spokespeople when asked by reporters about the lack of action has often seemed dismissive; the official response has been to point to previous State Department travel warnings about the dangers in Yemen, which seems like blaming the U.S. citizens for being there in the first place. Many of these people are Yemeni immigrants or the children of immigrants who returned to see their families.

“We are giving Americans opportunities -- information about opportunities, I should say -- to use other methods of leaving Yemen, and that’s why we have been very clear since the mid-1990s that people should not travel to Yemen,” State Department acting spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Monday.

A reporter pointed out that one of the State Department’s absolute highest responsibilities is protecting U.S. citizens abroad.

“Absolutely,” Harf responded. “That’s why we have been telling them not to go to Yemen.”  

The actual information that the State Department has been sending U.S.-citizens in Yemen has been spotty, vague and unhelpful, according to Ayoub. Random alerts have pointed Americans to travel great distances for opportunities to leave the country without any assurances they would be successful when they get there.

“The U.S. government has been informed that there is another Indian naval ship that will leave from Hodeidah on April 12, arriving in Djibouti on April 13,” an April 11 emergency message for U.S. citizens stated. “We have been told that U.S. citizens are welcome and should get to Hodeidah as soon as possible. Unfortunately we have no information on who to contact to board this ship.”

Ayoub said one recipient of this alert was a 12-year old girl who lived six to eight hours away from the destination. With no means to make the journey through an active war zone, she was unable to take the State Department’s advice.

It seems that the department’s excuses for not directly rescuing Americans in Yemen are disappearing quickly. Not only is there a temporary ceasefire between the Saudi-backed government and the Houthis, there’s even a new U.S. Naval flotilla in the Gulf of Aden, including an aircraft carrier, to assist in any rescue operation. (On the  negative side, al-Qaeda in Yemen is more intent than ever to attack American.)

But if Americans in Yemen were hoping for good news from Washington following the Saudi announcement, they were surely disappointed to see Tuesday’s new message on the State Department’s “Yemen Crisis” web page.

“We have seen the media reports that Saudi Arabia has announced the end to its air campaign in Yemen,” it stated. “There are no plans for a U.S. government-coordinated evacuation of U.S. citizens at this time. If you wish to depart Yemen, you should stay alert for other opportunities to leave the country.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Josh Rogin at joshrogin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net