Somalia + 1 more

Somalis risk all on voyage to Yemen

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By Lin Noueihed

KHARAZ CAMP, Yemen, May 16 (Reuters) - Some eke out a living in a dusty shanty town on the edge of Yemen's main port of Aden. Others try crossing into wealthier Gulf Arab states in search of work. The poorest end up in a refugee camp deep in the desert.

Fleeing conflict and poverty in their homeland, thousands of Somalis risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden each year, crammed into rickety boats in search of a better life.

Many never make it, thrown into shark-infested seas by people-smugglers. Those who survive are dumped on the beaches of Yemen, which grants them refugee status but, as one of the poorest countries outside Africa, can offer little more.

Ali Hussein Hassan, 37, paid smugglers $125 to make the voyage a month ago. The boat trip took four days and five of the 225 people on board died of thirst on the way.

Now he sells scavenged items -- a broken radio, used batteries -- from a cart in Basateen, a run-down Aden suburb of mud-brick huts and unpaved alleys filled with rotting garbage.

He said he was trying to raise enough money to send for the wife and three children he left behind.

"I chose Yemen as I did not have the money to go elsewhere. Now I live here alone, with no one to take care of me," Hassan said. "I did not have the money to bring my family with me."

Since last decade, Somalis have fled to Yemen from conflict at home. With U.S.-backed Ethiopian and Somali troops battling Islamist and clan fighters in Mogadishu -- the worst violence in 16 years -- the refugees' plight is now back in the spotlight.

CAMP LIFE

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says it knows of 60 boats that have arrived in Yemen this year and at least 363 people who died on their way from the Horn of Africa.

Abdul-Malik Abboud, UNHCR external relations assistant in Sanaa, said for years arrivals numbered well over 1,000 per month, adding to the estimated 102,000 refugees living in Yemen.

"There could be thousands of others that arrive and we never know of," he said. About 98 percent of the total are Somalis.

The agency registers new arrivals on the coast and offers them emergency aid. It then lets them make a difficult choice.

They can either live in the city, or go to Kharaz Camp, where they get food, water, medicine and a school but are a two-hour drive from Aden along a coastal road and dirt track.

Kharaz, a cluster of breeze block shelters and corrugated iron shacks where barefoot children play football in the stony scrub, is home to 8,245 Somalis and 654 Ethiopians.

Halima Hassan has spent half her life there. She was a girl when she left Somalia 15 years ago. Now 30, she married in Kharaz, had her three children in the camp and still lives there.

"We get enough for breakfast, lunch and dinner here, so thank God, but no more. The rations are not enough," she said.

The UNHCR, which has registered roughly another 40,000 more refugees outside the camp and estimates a further 50,000 are unregistered, says it can only work with the funds it has.

"Yemen's situation requires more help from donors and the international community. The more donors we have the more we can do," said Samer Haddadin, Senior Protection Officer in Sanaa.

THROWN OVERBOARD

Iraqi, Palestinian, Ethiopian and other refugees also live in poor conditions, but Somalis are the largest and poorest group, said lawyer Ahmad Arman, executive secretary of Yemen's National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD).

"Their situation is going from bad to worse ... Yemenis live in severe poverty, so how is a refugee going to live?" he said.

Despite their own poverty, Yemenis tend to sympathise with Somali refugees and often live alongside them in impoverished areas in scarcely better conditions. Yemen is the only state on the Arabian peninsula to sign the 1951 U.N. Refugee Convention.

Its richer neighbours do not give Somalis automatic refugee status, but that does not stop some from trying to reach the Gulf to find jobs unavailable in Yemen where unemployment is high.

"I arrived five years ago but I went first to Kenya, Rwanda Tanzania, and Sudan. I did not intend to stay in Yemen," said Mohammad Hassan, balancing on crutches.

"I am crippled and a foreigner so it is not easy to find work. But I get enough food every day. Life is survival."

The UNHCR says smugglers throw people overboard if they spot the coastguard or fear their crowded boats are overloaded. Some refugees suffocate or die of dehydration as smugglers seek new beaches on the 2,400-km (1,490 miles) coastline to drop them.

Yemen stepped up coastal patrols after joining the U.S.-led war on terrorism after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, but the UNHCR's Abboud said smugglers had been ruthless with migrants even before then.

"The boats are not fit to transport human beings to begin with," he said. "They cram people under benches and near engines at gunpoint."

The UNHCR says 26,000 people crossed last year. At least 330 died. Another 300 were reported missing and believed dead.

"There is no life here... I wish I could go back," said Asia Abdallah, balancing a baby on her hip, her two toddlers tugging at her black cloak. "If there was peace in Somalia I would."

Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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