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Juveniles in Yemen: Delinquents or Victims of War?

English

On a cold night, at around 1 am, Ahmad Sayani, 26, was getting ready to close the barbershop where he works, located on Marib Street in the middle of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa, when suddenly three drunk teenagers, the oldest no more than 16 years old and with a metal bar tucked under his arm, entered the store and hurled profanities at Sayani who quickly kicked the three children outside.

It has become all too common for Sayani, who blames parents’ negligence for this phenomenon. Minors and adults frequently loiter in the streets or fight with shop owners who accuse them of stealing, Sayani has witnessed, he says.

Two nights ago, he told The Media Line: “I saw a boy trying to steal from a truck loaded with fruits and then he ran away.” He added: “There are gangs of delinquents, most of whom are under 18 years old, who practice stealing and chew qat” – a mildly narcotic plant that is widely sold and consumed in all parts of Yemen – “and drink alcohol. What’s dangerous is that some of them carry weapons as a kind of thuggery, to hold up their victims – shop owners and small business owners – while exploiting the security deterioration in the country.”

He also explained that some of those gang members are connected to Ansar Allah, the Islamic group known as the Houthis, which dominates all the security aspects of Sanaa and the north of the country, and which according to Sayani “provides them with a kind of indirect protection.”

This is just a sample of the rising levels of juvenile delinquency in Yemen during the past five years, caused by the tragic conditions the country faces, as well as the economic deterioration which has contributed to the spread of theft and violence in an unprecedented way.

The war conditions also have driven thousands of minors and school children to practice begging and to drop out of school, as well as to join gangs or, in the best-case scenario, work for low wages.

Under Yemeni law, a juvenile is any person 15 years old or younger at the time of the commission of a criminal act as defined by law or by acting in a delinquent manner. Juvenile crimes are all violations defined by law and committed by minors, such as theft, begging, running away from home or school, drug abuse, prostitution, assaulting property and other acts defined by the law as “grave” or “non-grave” violations. The penalties for these crimes are also set out under juvenile laws.

Since the March 26, 2015, Saudi-led intervention in Yemen by nine West Asian and North African countries, which began with a bombing campaign on Houthi rebels, Yemen has witnessed a fierce armed conflict between the Houthis, which controls the south of Yemen, and the government forces loyal to President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, backed by the Saudi-led coalition. These battles occurred after the Iran-backed Houthis staged a coup and took control over the Yemeni capital of Sanaa in September 2014.

Disappointed parents and a lost future

Mohammed Namer (not his real name), 42, who has been working in Saudi Arabia for the past seven years, never would have imagined that his 14-year-old son, here called Derar, a gifted student, would turn into a killer who took a life during a fight over a few sticks of qat.

It happened one night when a dispute erupted between Derar and a dealer based in the qat market in Hajjah in north-western Yemen. The fight ended when Derar firmly planted his jambiya, a traditional bladed weapon worn by Yemenis, in the dealer’s chest killing him instantly. The attack occurred after the dealer smacked Derar on his face, which is considered a serious insult in Yemen.

In the Al-Nasseriya Prison in the Hajjah governorate, which is bordered by the Red Sea and is located 200 km north of Sanaa, dozens of minors are held on murder charges, and the families of some have given up on them. Among those are Ali Mahmoud, 20, who entered prison five years ago, after he violently killed an elderly man on his own farm. Mahmoud stabbed the elderly man dozens of times in various parts of his body and then beheaded him after the senior citizen caught Mahmoud as he was robbing him late at night. This crime was so shocking that Mahmoud lost all sympathy from his family and tribe, and he was handed over to the authorities.

Even though five years have passed since Mahmoud was first detained, some of the prison staff say that continuing the detention is necessary until a settlement is reached with the victim’s family to prevent revenge killings, something that is still rife in tribal communities and which does not take into account the perpetrator’s age at the time of the crime.

Violations committed by male juveniles are more common and especially in cities, and the rate of female juveniles committing crimes is still somewhat low and mostly related to begging, theft and fraud, according to a security official in the interior ministry.

Despite its prevalence, there are no official or unofficial statistics regarding the number of delinquent juveniles in Yemen except for a few statistics issued by some rehabilitation homes, which only include the number of resident juveniles inside the facilities, and which represent a small percentage of the true number.

Many experts attribute the sudden rise of juvenile delinquency to the conditions that have occurred in parallel to the conflict in the country, which has caused the death of 175,000 civilians and created another 1 million internally displaced persons, while over 20 million people suffer from insecurity, including 10 million who are at risk of famine, according to the latest report by Human Rights Watch. All of that was accompanied by a deterioration in the value of Yemen’s currency; a significant rise in the prices of foodstuffs, fuels and services; and the halt of many economic activities in the country, as well as leaving 1.5 million workers in the public sector without salaries since August 2016.

Mohammed Al-Erafi, director of the juveniles’ social guidance home in Sanaa, confirms that the new reality created by the war contributed “in a major way” to juvenile delinquency and to fueling their actions with violence, especially with the huge wave of displacement the country is experiencing, which caused some families to send their children to eke out a living on the streets, after their public sector salaries, which the majority of Yemenis relied on, were not paid. These so-called “street kids” learned violent behavior in the streets. Erafi added that some children are recruited to participate in criminal activities or are used in human trafficking or robberies. In addition, some families require their children to make a certain sum of money each day and if they don’t pay they are punished or not allowed to enter the home. This forces the juveniles into theft and other crimes to come up with the daily sum.

According to Erafi, other children have turned to delinquency after being subject to domestic violence.

To understand the psychological implications of this phenomenon, The Media Line spoke with psychologist, researcher and blogger Muath Al-Salehi, who said that psychological research confirms that financial deprivation and miserable living conditions both have negative effects on neurological activities, among them the ability to plan, focus, analyze and remember.

“A person who grows up in a deprived environment usually receives a bad education and lives in a bad health system and has an unhealthy or perhaps insufficient nutrition,” he said, adding: “As a result of the deprivation of the simplest of basic needs, a person sits in a cocoon of misery and violence and this in itself is the essence of the problem, most of the time.”

To further explain the motives behind carrying a weapon and threatening people, Muath said: “When a person carries a weapon in his hand for the first time then aims it at someone to get their money, the person carrying the weapon will have a larger motive to carry the weapon again, seeking more rewards. On the other hand, a person may carry a weapon to protect himself against the crimes that happen continuously in their environment.”

A parallel increase in criminal offenses

The spike in crime levels in Yemen is not limited to juveniles and minors only, rather juvenile crimes are just an extension of the overall spike in crime levels. There has been an increase in crime in recent years, which is confirmed by Abdulkhaleq Al-Ojary, spokesperson of the Houthis’ cabinet, who said in a statement that: “The security forces built in the areas under their control, since March 2015 and until the end of 2019, a total of 64,204 criminal cases in addition to 342 cases for counterfeiting currency.”

According to data from NUMBEO, a global database including reported consumer prices and perceived crime rates, crime rates in Yemen soared during the past three years, registering an increase of 86.36%. According to the Gulf Studies Center, Yemen is at the bottom of the list of the safest Arab countries.