Trapped in Yemen, Americans File Lawsuit Against US Government

A group of Yemeni-Americans is suing the U.S. government for failing to help them escape war-torn Yemen.

Khalid Awnallah, a Yemeni-American, is safe today in Michigan, but his wife and four children are among the thousands of American citizens believed stranded in the midst of an escalating civil war in Yemen.

“They are in a bad situation there, they are hearing bombs all the time and are scared to go out,” said Awnallah, whose family is in the Rada’a district of southern Yemen, a site of frequent battles between Houthi rebels and members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Despite the ongoing danger to their lives, Awnallah says that his family has received no assistance from the U.S. government. “[My family] has tried to get in touch, but no one is helping them,” he said. “They are asking me all the time if they are going to die here.”

On April 9, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government on behalf of Awnallah’s family and dozens of other Yemeni-Americans trapped in the country. Citing Executive Order 12656, which obligates “protection or evacuation of U.S. Citizens and nationals abroad” in times of danger, the lawsuit further alleges that the U.S. government’s refusal so far to conduct evacuation operations in Yemen represents the continuation of longstanding policies that effectively deny full citizenship rights to Yemeni-Americans.

“The U.S. has conducted dozens of evacuations of its citizens over the past decades from situations even more precarious than this,” said Gadeir Abbas, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the suit. “Many countries with far less capabilities have evacuated their citizens. The fact that Yemeni-Americans are being left without help leaves the impression that they’re viewed as expendable, second-class citizens.”

While countries such as China, Russia, India, Pakistan and even Somalia have all conducted operations to rescue their citizens still in Yemen, the United States has so far declined to launch similar efforts on behalf of Americans in the country. On April 3, State Department spokesperson Marie Harf announced that despite the deteriorating security situation in the country, there was “no plan” to develop efforts to evacuate American citizens there. 

Given the lack of government action, the 55,000 Americans believed to be in Yemen have been left to make their own plans to flee the country. One 26-year-old Yemeni-American man from San Francisco had to engineer his own escape by driving across the country, passing through dangerous checkpoints, and even experiencing temporary kidnapping, before escaping on a small rented fishing boat out to the Red Sea.

Less fortunate was Jamal al-Labani, a 45-year-old father of one from California, who last week became the first American citizen known to die in the conflict when he was killed by a mortar strike in the southern city of Aden.

Lena Masri, another lawyer representing American citizens and their families trapped in the conflict, told The Intercept that threats to Americans have increased, with U.S. citizens specifically being threatened with violence by extremist groups. “The father of one my clients last week went into hiding after receiving a death threat from a member of ISIS,” he said. “They told him that they knew he was an American, and that they were going to kill him.”

For many Yemeni-Americans, their predicament is compounded by what they allege to be systematic denial of their citizenship and consular rights by the U.S. government. “A lot of Yemeni-Americans have been stranded like this since before the conflict even started; the U.S. embassy often declines to renew their passports or simply confiscates them when brought for renewal,” Masri said. “Many Yemeni-Americans have been subjected to extrajudicial exile. They’re not treated as full citizens.”

A 2010 State Department Office of the Inspector General report stated that “a large number of Yemeni-Americans reflect local standards of illiteracy and lack of education,” while characterizing Yemeni-Americans as having a tenuous or incomplete connection with the United States, despite their citizenship there. It has long been alleged that Americans living in Yemen are at risk of having their citizenship documents confiscated by American officials while seeking consular services, so much so that in 2013, the American Civil Liberties Union released a pamphlet advising Yemeni-Americans to be cautious when attempting to obtain such services while abroad.

Contacted by The Intercept for comment about the lawsuit, the State Department stated that it was not their policy to comment on pending litigation. Advisory messages posted on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a have suggested American citizens could seek help from the Indian government, while also stating that they “have no contact information for [Indian] vessels” and “cannot guarantee all citizens [can] be accommodated.”

The conflict in Yemen recently escalated when a regional coalition of countries, including several U.S. allies, began conducting military operations against Houthi rebels in the country. The U.S. military is reported to be offering intelligence and logistical support to these forces. Three U.S. Navy ships are also believed to be stationed near the southern port of Aden as part of these operations, but they have not been offered for evacuation assistance.

In response to questions in an April 6 press briefing about the ongoing decision to deny evacuation services to Yemeni-Americans trapped in the conflict, Harf said: “It’s not that we can’t. There’s always a decision — different factors are weighed. … If we have any changes to whether or not we’ll evacuate people, we will certainly let folks know.”

That same day, the State Department posted a notice that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) was planning a flight to evacuate U.S. citizens from Yemen, though it’s unclear if any flight actually departed. “The Department of State cannot guarantee that all U.S. citizens seeking to depart via an IOM flight can be accommodated,” the notice read.

Photo: Hani Mohammed/AP

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