Published on 4 June 2012 in Report
Muaad Al-Maqtari (author)
Around 300 African refugees had set up their camp off the UNHCR premises in 2011 for more than 20 days demanding solutions for their bad conditions impacted by Yemen’s unrest.
Sibli Yhonis, 30, holds her refugee card in Sana'a. But she isn’t happy. She wants to leave for another country.
She sleeps with a group of Ethiopian refugees under a sign for the Ministry of Human Rights. No help is provided to find them a place other than the pavement where they are subjected to police attacks.
With the other refugees, Yhonis discusses the continuous repression of the police during their daily sit-ins at the Ministry of Human Rights, where they accuse Minister of Human Rights Houriah Mashhour of delaying meeting their demands.
Her refugee card stipulates that anyone bearing the card is not necessarily qualified to receive financial support or lodging in another country. This is applicable to the 215,000 refugees Yemen recognizes.
In Yemen, more than half a million of its displaced people in the south and north suffer from food insecurity in addition to the quarter million refugees who arrived on the coast during last year’s political crisis.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sana'a reported that they targeted 1,300 refugees for relocation to another country. Only 389 have been transferred.
Sibli is not the only one frustrated with the wait. Regional Manager of UNCHR in the Middle East and North Africa Yaqoob Al-Hilwa said only 2 percent of refugees took advantage of lodging in another country.
The refugees dream of a new life. However, their dreams have brought them painful tragedies because information indicates that more than 11,000 Ethiopians remain immobile along the Yemen-Saudi Arabia border.
Al-Hilwa said the situation for Ethiopians in Sana'a is more complicated compared to the situation for Somalis. Few claim asylum, and the rest resort to smugglers to help them sneak into southern Saudi Arabia.
According to Al-Hilwa, "It is difficult to know the authentic number of immigrants who arrive at Saudi Arabia due to the unlawful trafficking gangs' work."
He added that refugees on the border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia are at the mercy of smugglers who sexually and financially manipulate the stowaways.
Al-Hilwa said 103,000 Africans reached Yemen in 2011, and among them were 75,000 Ethiopians. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia doubled surveillance on borders in the course of the yearlong chaos in Yemen and deported the African immigrants.
Hilwa said the international community and Yemen deem the Ethiopians as stowaways; not refugees, which means they do not have the right to claim asylum.
According to Hilwa, many Ethiopians indicated that it is difficult to eke out a living in their country because of political repression and economic recession, in addition to a drought that has become rampant across the Horn of Africa.
Crosses to escape
Africans are smuggled through two crosses. The first is the Gulf of Aden, starting from the Bosaso Strait located southeast of Somalia. The second cross is the Red Sea, beginning from Obock, Djibouti. Al-Hilwa asserted those who cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden face considerable challenges during their journey from their home country to the Yemeni coast.
He added, "The immigrants are liable to arrest, psychological, physical violence, human trafficking, the lack of basic services such as food, water, education and health care, let alone the restrictions on their movements and unemployment.”
A report released in February by the Ministry of Interior said 170 Africans were subject to detention, punishment and mistreatment by criminals in the Hard District on Yemen-Saudi border from January 2011 to February 2012.
The report also said the victims were composed of 91 youths, ten women, 50 children and ten seniors, and most of them were exposed to beating, burning and blows to the face, resulting in vision and hearing impairments.
The assessments conducted by UNHCR pointed out that the Ethiopians are unaware of the circumstances that they will be facing in Yemen. During the assessments, the Ethiopians said, had they known the difficulties they would face, they would not have headed toward Yemen.
Concerns and restrictions
The Somali refugees have a better chance of claiming asylum once they arrive in Yemen. Once asylum is claimed, refugees are confined to a specific location. Thus, they are not free to move around the country. Moreover, UNHCR indicated that 27,000 Somalis arrived through the Gulf of Aden in 2011.
The Somalis make up the highest ratio of refugees in Yemen. An estimated 200,000 live in refugee camps for an extended period after fleeing their country because of drought, poverty and continuous civil strife.
The UNHCR reports indicate that In addition to the Somalis, there are other groups of refugees in Yemen, namely the approximately 5,000 Ethiopians. The 5,000 Iraqis and 1,000 Eritreans make up the second and third largest groups of refugees. Of the Eritrean refugees, many are afraid to return home for fear of repression because some were soldiers who escaped the compulsory service time.
The Reception Network, an organization along the Yemeni coast, receives Somalis and transfers them to the Kharaz refugee camp in Lahj. Some refugees continue traveling to urban areas.
Some Ethiopian immigrants refuse to return to their country. UNHCR expressed concern about the suppression that Ethiopians face because of their political affiliation in Ethiopia. Yet Yemen does not deal with them as refugees.
The Haradh branch of the International Organization for Migration offered voluntary returns for more than 5,000 Ethiopians in 2011, but it is unknown how many of them chose to return home.
UNHCR in Yemen said that it, too, conducted a voluntary return program. Unfortunately, few people benefited due to their social background in areas of Ard Somal and Bont Land in Somalia.
Most of the Somalis in Yemen are from the South Middle Region. Thus, the UNHCR cannot send them back due to the civil strife.
Furthermore, UNHCR employees and the assessment team located in Sana'a face hindering security restrictions when they try to approach the Red Sea to address the problems faced by the refugees; the coastal area of the Red Sea is a military area that is restricted for civilians.
African refugees are a touchy issue in Yemen. Yemen faces a similar shortage crisis as the crises in countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia, yet it is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that endorsed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention.
"The United Nations should perform its duty to help Yemen endure the crisis," Al-Hilwa said.