May 24, 2012
A record number of migrants fleeing drought, poor economic conditions and security instability in the Horn of Africa are settling in Yemen, placing huge burdens on a country saddled with its own internal displacement problems.
In the past four months, 43,000 people have made the journey from Ethiopia and Somalia, compared to 30,000 during the same period last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it is concerned with the rise in insecurity and trafficking in the region.
"All those who had decided to make the crossing exposed themselves to extreme risks and dangers at every stage of their journey," UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told reporters in Geneva on May 18th. "They faced shocking levels of abuse and violence by smugglers, as well as arbitrary arrests and detention, closed borders and forced returns, trafficking, lack of access to shelter, water, food or medical assistance."
"Those who make it often arrive exhausted, dehydrated, malnourished and in a state of shock," Mahecic said.
Just in April, 2,144 Somali refugees and 1,147 Ethiopians arrived on the coasts of Yemen, according to the Yemen Media Centre, an organisation run by the Yemeni Ministry of Interior.
The Yemeni government said this month that the number of Somali refugees in Yemen has reached 2 million since the start of Somalia's civil war in the early 1990s.
In addition to the influx of refugees, Yemen is facing its own challenges with internal displacement. There are 470,000 people who are registered as internally displaced in Yemen, with an estimated additional 95,000 people who are still unregistered, according to the UNHCR.
The UNHCR this year appealed for $60 million to address the humanitarian needs of the refugees and internally displaced people in Yemen. So far, the agency said, it has received a third of the funds.
The Yemeni Ministry of Interior has also expressed concerns over the influx of refugees arriving from the Horn of Africa.
"Refugees from Somalia and the Horn of Africa have challenged the Yemeni government, especially from a security angle, as some of them join criminal gangs or armed groups that use violence against the state," Colonel Mohammed al-Qaidi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, told Sabahi.
Yemeni officials are also concerned that the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab movement is sending Somali fighters to join al-Qaeda's fight against the army. In March, the interior ministry accused al-Shabaab of sending 300 fighters to Yemen.
Yemeni Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Muthana Hassan said Yemen is receiving refugees at a time when its own people have been internally displaced from conflict and fighting between the government and al-Qaeda in some provinces.
"The number of refugees and immigrants who have come to Yemen during the past few years has reached 750,000, which has burdened the country, which suffers from difficult economic and security conditions, especially after the events of last year," Hassan said at the international ministerial conference on "Refugees in the Muslim World" held May 11th-12th in Turkmenistan.
Hassan said Yemen is committed to international conventions and treaties protecting the status of refugees, especially the United Nations' 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees.
Many refugees arriving in Yemen have little desire to return home in the immediate future, further burdening the Yemeni government.
Hussain Abdi Mohammed, in his 30s, came to Yemen illegally four years ago fleeing war and famine in Somalia. He currently works at a Somali restaurant in the Safia neighbourhood in the heart of the capital.
He said he maintains communications with his family back in Somalia and wishes he could bring them to Yemen to be reunited. He told Sabahi he wishes to remain in Yemen until the situation in Somalia improves.
Bashir Omar also came to Yemen illegally and settled in Taiz province. He cannot speak Arabic fluently and relies on his fellow Somali countrymen to help him overcome the language barrier.
Even though he is unable to find employment and has to rely on his wife's wages from domestic work to feed their three children, he said that he wishes to live in Yemen for the rest of his life.
Likewise, Ismail Abd Haras, 69, fled to Yemen five years ago when his entire family was wiped out except for two of his children whose fate he knows nothing about.
Haras cannot speak Arabic at all and has no place of his own. He dreams of one day finding his two sons and spending the rest of his life in Yemen because he said he has found security and stability.
According to a study by Yemeni economist Rafiq al-Qudsi, refugees have access to education and healthcare at government facilities free of charge. There are also special schools for refugees where the government covers all expenses, such as teachers' salaries, building maintenance and services.
In addition, the government allocates special healthcare centres for refugees, who can also receive services from other government centres. Al-Qudsi said the large number of refugees has incurred high costs on the Yemeni economy.
Taha al-Fasil, an adviser to the Ministry of Industry and Trade, said refugees have been a huge challenge for development in Yemen. "They compete with citizens to obtain services, while negatively impacting business and burdening the Yemeni workforce by reducing wages," he said.
"The length of Yemen's coasts, coupled with a weak regulatory system, makes Yemen a hub for refugees coming from the Horn of Africa, especially from Somalia," al-Fasil said.
Sanaa University economics professor Mohammed al-Maytami told Sabahi that foreign aid to Yemen is minimal, relative to the responsibilities it shoulders. The Yemeni citizen's share of aid is estimated at $12 per year, while an individual living in Afghanistan receives $118 per year, he said.
"The international community [has an obligation] to help Yemen, which faces huge challenges, especially at this time," he said.
"Yemen has very scarce and limited resources, so refugees put pressure on local residents who are in dire need of these resources," al-Maytami said. "Some international organisations give handouts directly to the refugees and not to the government, which should be generously supported by the international community."
Al-Maytami said studies have shown that the Yemeni government spends about $2,300 per refugee annually. "This is the same amount the government spends on each citizen in terms of basic services such as health, education and other services," he said.
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