For several years, tens of thousands of asylum seekers and refugees fleeing to Yemen from the volatile Horn of Africa region have endured terrible human rights abuses that have gone largely ignored by the outside world. Many have suffered violence or lost their lives while attempting the perilous sea crossing from the Horn. And the reception that awaits those who survive the journey depends not on why they have come but on where they come from.
Since the beginning of 2008, more than 100,000 people have set off to Yemen in boats from Djibouti or the Somali port city of Bosasso. More than 99 percent of them are Somalis and Ethiopians, and many are fleeing war or persecution at home. Some have fled seeking protection as refugees, some are looking for work and hope to pass through Yemen to Saudi Arabia and other wealthy countries, and some have left for a combination of reasons.
Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention, but it has interpreted the term "refugee" in a way that strips the convention of its core principles. The government of Yemen has displayed an extraordinary generosity towards Somalis, granting all of them prima facie refugee status because of the conflict raging in their country. But for Ethiopians the opposite is true. Whether they are economic migrants or asylum seekers in need of protection, the policy of the central government is to track them down, arrest them, and deport them.
The authorities do not recognize Ethiopians as legitimate asylum seekers, a discriminatory policy that violates international law. Even the few who make it to the offices of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) without being arrested by the security forces and who then secure UNHCR recognition as refugees, do not receive official status from the Yemeni authorities. This leaves them vulnerable to serious continuing abuse.
The arduous one-to-three day crossing from Bosasso to Yemen's southern coast is where the worst horrors take place. Boats are dangerously overcrowded; upwards of 150 passengers are regularly crammed onto dilapidated vessels that could safely carry fewer than half that number. Many are crewed by notoriously brutal smugglers who beat, rob, rape, and even murder their passengers.
To keep overcrowded boats from capsizing, smugglers order their passengers not to move, even to stretch cramped limbs, until they reach land. Since the journey from Bosasso takes at least a day, these orders are impossible to follow. On almost every boat the story is the same-as the journey stretches on passengers are compelled to stretch, stand up, or otherwise try to relieve the pain building up in their joints and limbs. The smugglers respond by beating those who move using rubber whips, sticks, or their own fists and feet. In some cases disruptive passengers are bound hand and foot or forced into the dank and airless cargo holds below deck. Smugglers have murdered passengers who create too much commotion-beating them to death, stabbing them, or pushing them into the sea to drown. Many female passengers are sexually assaulted and at least a few have been raped while other passengers looked on helplessly.
As terrible as the journey is, the greatest danger often lies just as the exhausted travelers finally come close to Yemen's shores. Fearing capture if they land on the beaches, smugglers often force their passengers to jump into deep water far from shore. But many cannot swim, or are simply too exhausted from their ordeal to stay above water. Hundreds have drowned within sight of the beaches they set out for, and survivors are haunted by the memory of seeing friends and family members disappear beneath the water.
Those who make the sea crossing to Yemen arrive along one of two coasts. Ethiopians and other non-Somalis face one of two very different receptions, depending which coast they alight on. Most of the Ethiopians who arrive in Yemen by boat leave from Djibouti and land along Yemen's Red Sea coast. There they encounter security forces who zealously enforce the government's orders to arrest and deport Ethiopians as they arrive.
Knowing this, many Ethiopians make prior arrangements with smugglers who whisk them off the beaches within minutes of arrival. Those who do not are left on their own and must keep to the shadows, dodging the security forces and moving inland in search of less strictly policed areas. Many are captured. They are detained and put on a fast-track to deportation, even if they are seeking asylum.
Along Yemen's Arab Sea coast-to the east of the Red Sea coast-the security forces take a more lenient approach. Ethiopians who arrive there after making the dangerous crossing from Bosasso (in Puntland, northern Somalia) can usually seek assistance at one of two UNHCR-run reception centers without immediate fear of arrest. This is truly a life-saving act on the part of the local authorities; many new arrivals are in urgent need of medical attention after the arduous crossing.
At these reception centers, UNHCR staff issue "appointment slips" to Ethiopians who want to apply for asylum. The forms ask the authorities to allow their bearers 10 days to reach the office of the UNHCR in either Sana'a or Aden. But the forms are a deeply inadequate mechanism of protection. They are not issued by the government and carry no legal weight: on the country's main roads, security personnel arrest or extort bribes from many of the asylum seekers who carry them.
The Yemeni government's refusal to officially recognize Ethiopian asylum seekers as legitimate asylum seekers also leaves them vulnerable to other forms of abuse. Newly arrived Ethiopian women have been raped near the beaches while trying to make their way inland, lost and alone. The victims of these abuses know they cannot complain to the authorities without risking arrest, and the people who target them are well aware of that as well.
The unknown numbers of Ethiopian asylum seekers who are captured by the security forces face refoulement alongside other Ethiopians scheduled for deportation. Ethiopian embassy officials regularly visit all of the Ethiopian detainees in the immigration detention facility in Sana'a, at least in part to verify their nationality. But there is disturbing evidence that in some cases these officials are allowed to coerce asylum seekers into signing forms indicating their willingness to return to Ethiopia. There is no indication that the Yemeni authorities give detained Ethiopians any opportunity to lodge asylum claims, let alone claims where their confidentiality is respected, particularly with respect to their home government which they claim would persecute them. Neither UNHCR nor any other international organization has regular access to any detention facility where asylum seekers and migrants are held.
Ethiopian asylum seekers who manage to navigate all of the obstacles in their path to reach a UNHCR office and are recognized as refugees by the agency are safe from refoulement. The Yemeni government stops trying to apprehend Ethiopian nationals once they apply for refugee status with UNHCR-unless UNHCR ultimately rejects their claims. But even Ethiopians recognized as refugees by UNHCR still face serious human rights problems.
The Yemeni government refuses to issue Ethiopian and other non-Somali refugees with any kind of identification documents. This leads to regular harassment and extortion by the security forces and impairs their ability to claim the rights to which they are entitled as refugees. Many Ethiopian refugees in Yemen suffer discrimination, sexual harassment, and violence and are often unable to obtain any kind of redress from the police or other government authorities. And Ethiopian refugees involved in "political" community organizing activities have been subjected to threats and violence. The head of a prominent Oromo Ethiopian refugee community organization in Yemen was murdered in December 2008 after receiving anonymous death threats from other Ethiopians for months.
The Yemeni government is in a genuinely difficult position-the tens of thousands of Somali refugees it has already welcomed represent an enormous strain on the country's fragile economy. Yemen is also under strong pressure from Saudi Arabia and other neighboring states to stop the flow of migrants who use Yemen as a transit point to reach their countries. Still, the government bears ultimate responsibility for the human rights abuses generated by its discriminatory approach to dealing with Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers. Yemen needs assistance in meetings its obligations under international law towards asylum seekers and refugees-but it must meet them nonetheless.
For its part, UNHCR has not done nearly enough to push for better protection of Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen. UNHCR has an excellent relationship with the government of Yemen on the issue of Somali refugees and preserving that good relationship is important. But favorable treatment of one refugee group should not come at the expense of another, especially when this involves systematic refoulement and other abuses directed against the disfavored group. UNHCR faces a government disinclined to change its policies regarding Ethiopians and other non-Somalis, but too often the refugee agency has acted as though the plight of these refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen is a secondary issue.
Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned about UNHCR's failure to press the Yemeni government more forcefully and consistently to allow asylum seekers to seek refugee status in Yemen regardless of their nationality. UNHCR has had modest success in negotiating better treatment of Ethiopians who arrive along the Arab Sea coast, but has failed to push hard enough at all levels of the agency and using all means at its disposal for an end to the government's systematic refoulement of Ethiopian asylum seekers arriving on the Red Sea coast. UNHCR says that it has repeatedly raised the issue privately at high levels with the Yemeni government. But Human Rights Watch's research has found that these quiet interventions have been entirely ineffective.
In other situations, UNHCR has publicly rebuked unresponsive governments for denying asylum seekers access to UNHCR and for committing refoulement. But in Yemen, UNHCR has neither pushed hard enough for access to asylum seekers in detention nor for the government to end its discrimination against non-Somali applicants recognized by UNHCR as refugees. When quiet interventions have failed, UNHCR has not publicly demanded access to detained Ethiopian asylum seekers or publicly criticized the government for committing refoulement. While UNHCR in Yemen has understandably placed a premium on maintaining cooperative relations with the authorities, there are certain times and circumstances where the situation demands a clearly assertive approach. This is such a situation.
Human Rights Watch calls upon the government of Yemen to bring its practices regarding refugees and asylum seekers into line with its obligations under international law. It should begin by immediately ensuring that all asylum seekers are able to apply for refugee status in Yemen regardless of nationality. UNHCR should approach the range of serious protection issues facing Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers proactively and assertively, even if this means being openly critical of the Yemeni government.
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