Some know the risks, but believe Yemen will still be better than the war and food crisis they left behind. Others do not know or understand the situation, say analysts.
Accusations by both the government and the opposition that African migrants are engaged in the conflict in the capital, Sana’a – an allegation widely reinforced by local media – have fuelled the situation.
In September, Radio Bar-Kulan claimed that opposition groups in Sana’a had rounded up more than 40 Somali refugees for allegedly fighting alongside President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s supporters. Two Somalis were killed, according to locals, in a relatively safe part of the city, the radio station added.
Observers warn that as Saleh struggles to keep control of Yemen, the tenuous balance of power he maintained between tribes is threatening to disintegrate. With the situation becoming more complex, refugees and economic migrants, who do tend not to have the tribal and family connections to protect them, could face more danger.
Fighting between government and armed opposition forces in the south and a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations in the capital and other major cities have already made life harder for the more than 200,000 refugees and estimated 500,000 migrants in the country.
It has also affected the ability of aid agencies to help them. Yet September saw the highest number of new monthly arrivals – more than 12,000, an average of 400 a day – since 2006, bringing the total of new arrivals from January to September to 72,111, according to the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR. Many were fleeing famine and conflict in the Horn of Africa.
In the south, suspicion of foreigners has been fuelled by statements attributed to militants. In January 2010, a leading official of Somali militant group Al-Shabab said it would send fighters to Yemen to help support an Al-Qaeda affiliate there.
In May, taking advantage of the erosion of government authority, the militant group Ansar al-Shari’a – widely assumed to have ties with Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – took over several towns in the southern Abyan governorate, including the capital Zinjibar. Since then, government troops and tribesmen have been fighting to dislodge the group, forcing tens of thousands to flee.
They are suspicious of refugees and suspicious of foreigners. People say for every 100 people that come, there is one working with Al-Qaeda.These developments have led Yemenis to suspect Somalis arriving on their shores of involvement with the group.
“They are suspicious of refugees and suspicious of foreigners,” said Jonathan Gray, head of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) sub-office in the southern city of Aden. “People say for every 100 people that come, there is one working with Al-Qaeda.”
Refugees in the south are stopped more frequently at checkpoints, subjected to constant searches and are sometimes prevented from travelling, forcing them – on occasion – to miss out on services such as vocational training, he added.
Amid suspicions and reports that both Al-Qaeda and the government are trying to recruit refugees and migrants, ADRA, which works with refugees in Kharaz camp, about 130km west of Aden, has been raising awareness among refugees about the dangers of getting involved in conflict.
“Smugglers are taking advantage of the lack of proper governance resulting from the overall insecurity in the country,” said Sarah Saleh, deputy country director of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), which helps new arrivals on the Yemeni coast. With a smaller government presence, new arrivals are landing in more locations and more frequently – making it difficult for aid agencies to locate and assist them.
These challenges have been compounded by a fuel shortage, linked to the political crisis, which has limited the movement of aid agencies and their ability to operate generators amid electricity shortages.
Refugees and migrants who come to Yemen by boat from the Arabian Coast are normally transported to Kharaz camp through the Abyan governorate, but agencies have been forced to take a longer, safer route, which has slowed the frequency of transportation and forced newcomers to stay in transit centres longer than usual.
The route from Ahwar to Kharaz, for example, used to take two to three hours; now it can take eight hours, Saleh said. The trip from Mayfa’a to Kharaz – normally seven hours – now takes up to 17 hours, through al-Bayda, Lahj and Aden, to avoid areas like Zinjibar and Shuqrah, according to Nasser Salim Bajanoob, head of the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS), which transports new arrivals from reception centres to the camp.
SHS trucks are often stopped for up to two hours at a time by anti-government demonstrators who suspect the refugees on board of killing protesters, Bajanoob said. Aid agencies also have to fly their staff from Ahwar to Aden rather than drive through conflict areas, which has increased costs.
“Operationally, things have become exceedingly difficult,” Saleh said. “We’re all frustrated, to be honest. People do not wait for the trucks to take them to Kharaz [camp]. Sometimes, they say ‘to hell with it’ and they just go on foot.”
Women refugees from the Horn of Africa camping out near the UNHCR office in Sana’a This means a dangerous journey through conflict-ridden Abyan or a longer two-three-day walk to Kharaz or Basateen, an urban refugee settlement in Aden, with only the food and water that local communities give them along the way. They are sometimes detained and interrogated and asked to show documentation, DRC protection coordinator Wanjiku Githuka told IRIN.
Stuck at the border
Some of the new arrivals who land in the south aim to enter Saudi Arabia to find work.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), more than 12,000 migrants are stuck in the border region, unable to enter Saudi Arabia – due to increased smuggling fees and tightened security – and unable to return to Sana’a. The IOM has evacuated more than 6,000 in the past year. But since September, flights have been grounded.
The IOM in September said the airport road was impassable and flights out of the airport were hard to schedule. This has left the migrants in a “critical” condition at the border, IOM spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy said.
“They are threatened physically. Sometimes they are assaulted, beaten, robbed,” he told IRIN.
“In some cases they have no means to feed or take care of themselves,” Edward Leposky, UNHCR public information officer in Yemen, said. “Some are sick, hungry, dehydrated, living in open areas and exposed to the elements.”
Frustration has grown among migrants. In the northern city of Haradh, in September, 13 people were arrested after dozens of Ethiopians protested at an IOM departure centre demanding to be returned to Ethiopia, the IOM said.
Others, comprising mostly Ethiopian ethnic Oromos, staged a protest outside UNHCR offices in Sana’a, calling for resettlement in a third country.
Zeinab Hassan, a 26-year-old Ethiopian who had camped out in front of UNHCR for four months despite her pregnancy, said she did not have shelter, water, sanitation or maternal healthcare.
“There are only a limited number of countries accepting refugees from Yemen, and with the current heightened security situation, the interest to receive refugees from Yemen has further decreased,” Leposky said. Recipient countries, he added, normally sent assessment teams to review recommendations for resettlement, but those missions have been postponed for the time being.
UNHCR has tried negotiating with the protest leaders, but nothing has been agreed. “Some people are convinced if they wait it out they will get resettled to a western country,” Leposky said.
Staying in the open or under worn plastic sheets, the protesters wait for a nearby mosque to open to relieve themselves. A strong smell of human waste pervades the area.
Pro- and anti-government snipers have fired at each other as close as 1,200m away. “[When the fighting breaks out], we only have one meal a day or no meal at all as charitable people can’t find a safe route to provide us with food,” Yahya Abdulla, 70, another Oromo refugee, told IRIN. When there is no gunfire, “we can go from house to house to beg, but [sometimes] this becomes impossible”.
“Everyone is more desperate at the moment,” said ADRA’s Gray. The refugees, he added, were following the lead of Yemenis and others across the Arab world in using protests to air their grievances.
Most demonstrators have lost income-generating opportunities due to the unrest. Either they worked as domestic helpers and their employers have left Sana’a or they worked for farmers now hampered by an unprecedented shortage of diesel.
To try to soften the blow, UNHCR has increased the financial help it gives refugees, but this has failed to satisfy many of those affected.
The desperation has increased to the point of antagonism towards aid workers. Staff of international agencies have been threatened and, in one case, attacked by refugees, forcing some to relocate for their own safety.
Some asylum-seekers want to go back home, according to DRC’s Saleh. “A lot of them are saying they want to go back to Somalia, which is in many cases actually worse than Yemen.”
The experience has taken quite a psychological toll on them, Gray added. “A lot of Somalis will say ‘Wherever we go, we’re involved in war’.”
And yet more keep coming. “It is a real challenge to get the message to the grassroots level that Yemen is not a viable option,” the IOM’s Chauzy said. “We evacuate people from the border region, but people keep arriving. It is a bit of an endless task.”