Yemen + 2 more

Yemen examining its policy of offering Somalis automatic asylum

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Khaled Al-Hilaly

Published:24-12-2009

SANA'A, Dec. 23 - The Yemeni government is reviewing the policy of automatic asylum, enjoyed by the arrivals from Somalia, to adopt a new policy of examining each case separately to find out who deserves the status of a refugee and who is an illegal immigrant ,according to a statement by Ali Muthana the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs on Sunday.

"The open-door policy has encouraged the arrival of large numbers of Somalis, mostly children, young men and women, "said Muthana " The situation in Somalia still predicts the arrival of large numbers of Somalis to Yemen in the coming years,"

"The number of Ethiopians may also be equivalent, because of the drought and economic difficulties in the country, "He added.

Muthanna, who is also the Chairman of the National Sub-Committee on Refugee Affairs, referred to two perspectives in the government current policy regarding immigrants and refugees from Somalia and the Horn of Africa. The first is granting the Somalis an automatic asylum due to the circumstances of war and insecurity in their country. The second is considering those coming from stable and secure countries like Ethiopia and Eritrea as illegal immigrants. "There are exceptional cases in which we grant asylum to some people from those countries, "he said.

"The UNHCR is looking forward to meeting with the Committee {of Refugee Affairs} to discuss the modalities of how to proceed with this issue while respecting refugees and asylum-seekers' rights as well as ensuring that Yemen meets its treaty obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention," Said Andrew Knight, the UNHCR External Relations Officer in Sana'a.

Yemen is the only country in the region to be signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. Upon their arriving in Yemen, Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees by Yemeni authorities, while non-Somalis seeking asylum have to be undergo the UNHCR refugee status determination procedure. Non-Somalis fear arrest and detention by the Yemeni authorities who consider them illegal immigrants and hence leave the shore upon arriving, thus missing to be registered in the UNHCR reception centers.

Daily trips, crossing the treacherous Gulf of Aden, arrive to the Yemeni coast coming from Somalia, Ethiopia and other countries of the Horn of Africa. The vast majority is Somalis and Ethiopians, some flee war and persecution others look for economic opportunities in the Gulf States and Europe. UNHCR statistics show that 309 people lost their lives in 2009 and nearly 600 in 2008 as they made their journey, across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, to Yemen.

"There are large numbers of illegal immigrants from the Horn of Africa in prisons," according to Abdu Sallam Jawhar from the Refugees Administration at the Minister of Interior office."We provide them with food and health services."

In its latest report, the Human Rights Watch, describing the UNHCR job in Yemen as 'enormous and complicated', expressed concerned about UNHCR's failure to press the Yemeni government more forcefully and consistently to allow asylum seekers to get refugee status in Yemen regardless of their nationality.

"UNHCR's strategy of quiet diplomacy with the Yemeni government simply isn't working, "said Georgette Gagnon, Africa Director at Human Rights Watch "The agency needs to start treating the plight of Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees in Yemen as a priority and not secondary concern."

The UNHCR said, in their latest update for the press, that it "remains very concerned about the continued arrests and deportation of non-Somalis."

Knight said that the UNHCR had difficulty accessing those in detention in the past, but now there is great progress with the government and they are planning to establish a reception centre in Bab Al Mandab .

"This project marks a major step forward in helping Yemen to meet its human rights obligations without compromising its security interests," Knight said. "{In the reception centre} the non-Somalis can be screened before conducting the refugee status determination, thus avoiding the detention of asylum seekers."

The UNHCR was granted access to group of Somalis and Ethiopians deported from Saudi Arabia. The Somalis were transferred to refugee camps in the south. The screening by the UNHCR, to determine the asylum seekers among non-Somalis revealed that only 10 percent were asylum seekers. They were transferred to Kharaz camp to undergo refugee status determination procedures. The rest wanted to return to their country and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will facilitate their return, according to Knight.

"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," The Human Rights Watch said in the report. "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,"

The Human Rights Watch calls upon the Yemeni government to commit to its obligations under the international law by ensuring that all asylum seekers are able to apply for refugee status regardless of their nationalities.

Muthna said that the government estimates the number of immigrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa in Yemen to be approximately 750 thousand. "Most of them consider Yemen only as a transit to Gulf States, Europe, America and Canada, however large numbers of them settled in Yemen, "he said added.

In 2008, more than 50,000 new arrivals landed on the shores of Yemen - a 70 percent increase on the previous year. So far this year, already more than 70,000 have arrived, with a marked increase of non-Somalis, increasing the strain on the government's already limited resources, according to the UNHCR latest update.

"UNHCR is concerned that no refugees have been resettled since August. The security situation in Yemen restricts resettlement countries' governments' ability to send missions to Yemen thereby limiting UNHCR's ability to facilitate durable solutions, "the UNHCR update said.