Egyptian travel restrictions dash Yemenis' dream of medical tourism

Egyptian regulations crush Yemeni dreams of medical tourism
7 min read
10 August, 2023

The ongoing conflict in Yemen has severely impacted the healthcare sector, resulting in thousands of Yemenis seeking medical treatment abroad each year in search of better care.

The New Arab interviewed several Yemeni patients, all of which preferred to be treated in Egypt. They emphasised the cost-effectiveness of healthcare in Egypt, in contrast to countries like Jordan and India. The presence of experienced specialists in Egypt was also a major factor in their preference.

“Egypt is the lung from which Yemenis breathe,” said one of the patients The New Arab interviewed.

But all this changed on April 1, 2023, when Egyptian authorities imposed new travel restrictions for Yemenis travelling to Egypt.

"They took our passports at the airport. We tried to ask what the problem was but they didn't answer. After four hours of waiting, an officer handed us our passports and told us that we were not able to enter the country and that we must go back to Yemen"

Under the new regulations, all Yemeni citizens between the ages of 16-50 who seek medical treatment must now submit a medical report issued by an authorised government hospital in Egypt.

Before, Yemenis were allowed to enter Egypt with a medical report from any hospital affiliated with the Yemeni Ministry of Health. As a result, more than 60 travellers on flight 601, the first flight to take off after the new regulations, were denied entry to Cairo Airport and forced to return to Yemen.

Khalid Mohammed, a 32-year-old from Sanaa, was one of the passengers on flight 601 that landed at Cairo airport on April 2. Khalid told The New Arab what happened that day: “They took our passports at the airport. We tried to ask what the problem was but they didn't answer. After four hours of waiting, an officer handed us our passports and told us that we were not able to enter the country and that we must go back to Yemen."

He added, “Among the passengers was a man with a back injury; he was in so much pain that he couldn’t remain in his seat, and he had to lie down on the plane floor the entire flight back. Thank God there was no turbulence, otherwise, who knows what could have happened to him.”

Punishment or protection?

The new restrictions came days after a statement by Yemeni Foreign and Expatriate Minister Ahmed bin Mubarak from Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, declaring “Yemen’s support for the actions taken by the Ethiopian government to achieve security and stability.”

Some analysts indicate that the Minister’s statement has led to the imposition of new restrictions given the Egyptian-Ethiopian dispute over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERM).

However, the Egyptian ambassador to Yemen, Ahmed Farouq, explained that the new regulations include many nationalities, not just Yemenis.

A Yemeni diplomatic source, who declined to be named, told The New Arab that he does not believe the restrictions came as a reaction to the Yemeni Minister’s statement: “It's a security precaution matter,” he said.

He added, “Following the resumption of commercial flights between Sana'a and Amman, the Jordanian capital, information was exchanged between the Jordanian and Egyptian authorities regarding members of the Houthi movement who entered Jordan on their way to Egypt. The Egyptian authorities were alarmed by this information and has led to the imposition of new restrictions.”

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Black market

The new measures have had a shocking impact on Yemen, especially on patients with cancer or chronic diseases who are unable to receive proper medical care in Yemen. Therefore, thousands of Yemenis find that Egypt is the best choice when it comes to medical tourism.

“More than 10,000 Yemenis go to Egypt every month seeking medical treatment,” Baleegh Al-Mekhlafi, the Media Counsellor at Yemen Embassy in Egypt, told The New Arab.

The new regulations are too complicated to be followed by a patient living in Yemen. This has created a new black market for medical reports causing more exploitation of patients' needs.

Fathi Al-Faqih, a war-wounded 34 -year-old from Taiz living in Egypt, shared his experience getting a medical report for his relative in Yemen: “I went to the hospital every day for a week, they asked for all kinds of documents; a report to describe the patient’s condition, lab results, and X-rays. Finally, they said I should bring the patient to the hospital. I had no choice but to buy a report from the black market for $50, which I got in less than 24 hours.”

The prices of medical reports on the black market range from $30 to $90. Social media ads spread immediately after the new regulations where “brokers” now offer their services, including the option of 'home delivery'.”

"Timing is crucial for critically ill patients; I know this as a cancer survivor and liver transplant recipient. Due to the new complicated travel rules, by the time many patients arrive, it is already too late"

Even after obtaining the report, Yemenis still have trouble finding ways to send it to the patient in Yemen.

According to Waheeb, a Yemeni residing in Egypt who assists people in obtaining medical reports and sending them to Yemen, the Cairo Airport authorities only accept original copies of the report. He mentioned many passengers were turned away and forced to return to Yemen because they had only brought a PDF copy instead of the original document.

“Finding ways to send documents to Yemen is an exhausting process. I have to ask my friends or post on Facebook looking for passengers heading back to Yemen to send reports back with them,” he added.

Under the new rules, medical reports are only accepted from patients who live in Yemen. Yemenis residing in countries other than Yemen need to apply for a security permit.

Abo Ali, a 28-year-old man residing in Djibouti, faced a challenging task when he had to obtain a security permit to travel to Egypt to study. Unfortunately, his application was rejected after waiting for two months. Instead of giving up, Ali resorted to acquiring a security permit from the black market for a fee of $250.

Yemenis registering for free residence permit now only get three months of validity, instead of six months. Also, Yemenis aged 16-50 travelling with parents over 50 need to obtain a visa.

Life-threatening consequences

The new travel rules have serious repercussions. Yemen’s healthcare system has been in crisis since the war began in 2015; consequently, thousands of Yemenis' lives are at risk.

Nazir Abed, 53, from Hodeida, who owns a healthcare company in Egypt, said that he provides services to patients coming from Yemen such as recommending appropriate doctors for each case, contacting doctors, and arranging appointments.

Nazir explained how the new regulations affect patients needing to travel: “Timing is crucial for critically ill patients; I know this as a cancer survivor and liver transplant recipient. Due to the new complicated travel rules, by the time many patients arrive, it is already too late."

Dr Zeenat Saeed, a Yemeni nuclear medicine specialist, said that patients with chronic diseases pay the heaviest price.

“There is a significant shortage of all services and medicines in Yemen’s hospitals, including radiotherapy, nuclear scanning, and radioactive iodine, that are essential for cancer patients,” she told The New Arab.

She explained how the impact of the new travel restrictions on patients depends on the stage of the disease: “Patients with late-stage cancer are at risk of dying every minute the treatment is delayed, at that point, leaving the country is a necessity for urgent life-saving care, as well as for patients who need a bone marrow or kidney or liver transplants, and they were in a late stage of organ failure.”

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Yemenis urge their government to find a solution.

So far, there are no indications of any diplomatic measures by the Yemeni government to alleviate the suffering of their citizens. 

But a source in the Yemeni Foreign Ministry, who asked not to be named, told The New Arab that there are consultations between the Yemeni government and Egypt to develop a new agreement to regulate the entry for Yemenis into Egyptian territory with permits issued through Yemenia Airways.

Abdullah al-Shaeri, the director of Yemenia Airways Office in Cairo, however, revealed to The New Arab that he couldn’t confirm this information, “We have not been officially informed of any procedures regarding this matter,” he stated.    

Safa Naser holds a master's degree in journalism and teaches investigative journalism on the faculty of Mass Communication, University of Aden in Yemen.  Her research focuses on media and journalism education. She received a fellowship with Al Jazeera Media Institute in 2022. Naser also is a freelance journalist and works for several websites and newspapers in Yemen. She also is a contributing journalist with IRIN News; her reports focus primarily on humanitarian and social issues.

 She is also a member of The Marie Colvin Journalists' Network

Follow her on Twitter: @SafaNaser______