- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 3, 2009


Six-year-old Samira said she, her mother and her two brothers had spent the past week sleeping outside the door of an office waiting their turn to register as refugees.

Her father was shot and killed in the Somali civil war. She and her family were smuggled from Somalia to Yemen in a fishing boat. At the camp, they are hoping to get a tent and some food rations.

“Every day I feel hungry in this country,” Samira said.

There are already more than 160,000 African refugees in Yemen, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Most, like Samira, are among the half million people who have fled the 18-year-old civil war in Somalia.

This year, the number of new arrivals has increased 40 percent. Families are fleeing not only war, but also drought in East Africa and political turmoil in the run-up to 2010 Ethiopian elections.

They pay as much as $150 for the journey and come packed onto small fishing boats by smugglers, who beat passengers if they move even slightly, to prevent the boats from capsizing. In only a few days in early September, the United Nations reported 65 people either died or were presumed dead after three separate boats capsized.

More than a dozen died after being beaten by smugglers, and the rest drowned. Refugees say that many more die along the way and that the bodies are tossed overboard. “Let the fish eat them,” smugglers often say, according to Mohammad Noor Adam, a refugee from Somalia.

Sometimes the boats drop refugees on remote Yemeni beaches surrounded by desert. But often the smugglers don’t want to risk landing and order the refugees to swim to shore. Those that don’t jump are pushed.

Burham Wallow Barihu, an Eritrean refugee, made the journey across the Gulf of Aden with 140 other passengers about six months ago. Twelve died along they way, and their bodies were thrown into the gulf. When shots were fired at smugglers near the shore, an elderly woman, who was afraid to jump, was hit on the shoulder.

“I was the last off the boat because I forgot my documents,” he said. “She couldn’t drop off the boat.” Smugglers pushed the woman overboard, and Mr. Barihu wrangled her to shore. With no medicine to treat the wound, she died on the beach.

Bodies of refugees regularly wash up on the Yemeni shore and are buried in mass graves by UNHCR. So far this year, almost 300 people have drowned trying to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. More than 150 are missing and presumed dead.

After landing, Somalis, who have automatic refugee status in Yemen, are picked up by the international organizations or the Yemeni police and brought to the closest U.N. registration center or refugee camp.

However, refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea do not have automatic refugee status, which would allow them to stay in the country legally without a UNHCR interview, and often face arrest and deportation when they land. Those who speak the Somali language sometimes fake another nationality. Others flee the beaches. Many are caught and deported without the chance to plead their case to UNHCR.

The Yemeni government says the arrests are a justified defensive move. Officials say that African refugees are draining the country’s already limited resources. Yemen, one of the world’s poorest and least developed countries, is deeply embroiled in a civil war in the north that has forced 175,000 people from their homes.

The government is also battling a secessionist movement in the south, the growing al Qaeda organization, and a looming oil and water crisis that threatens every aspect of Yemen’s tenuous future. Officials often blame crime, disease, social problems, terrorism and economic hardship on the influx of refugees.

“Yemen is becoming a victim to other phenomena coming from other countries,” said Ali M. Al-Ayashi, the deputy minister for Arabic, African and Asian affairs at the Yemeni Foreign Ministry.

Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to international treaties that obligate the parties to host refugees. Although many refugees say they want to go to Saudi Arabia to find work, the safest route is through Yemen.

According to Mr. Ayashi, the strain that the growing refugee population puts on Yemen should be eased with more international assistance. The international community helps refugees, he said, but does not support host countries that bear most of the burden. “One country cannot take the whole responsibility for this problem,” he said.

At the Kharaz camp, about 13,000 refugees depend on international aid for food, water, medicine, housing and education. The refugees say there is never enough to go around.

After an inchlong cockroach crawled across her bed, Kamar Hussein pulled out a picture of her family and friends, taken during happier days in Somalia long ago. She began to sob. “Look,” she said. “I used to have beautiful hair.” She ripped off her blue headscarf and pointed to her frizzy yellow head. “Now I don’t even have shampoo. There is nothing. There is nothing.”

Community leaders at the camp say they try to improve living conditions by teaching residents about health care and sanitation but are thwarted by a lack of funding.

According to Abdulaziz Mohammad Ahmed, a Somali refugee and the chairman of the Refugee Youth Club at Kharaz, new arrivals who can will leave immediately.

Those who can’t afford to take a bus to the nearest city walk for days to get out of the camp. “Here, there is no work and no food,” he said. “Most people leave fast.”

U.N. Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, Janet Lim, recently visited Kharaz camp and said she thought refugees were better off living in Yemeni cities than in camps. In the cities, there is at least a chance of getting a job and building a new life. “A camp is not a natural setting,” she said in a phone interview after her tour. “It’s far from anywhere, in the middle of nowhere.”

But according to residents of Basateen, a shantytown just outside the port city of Aden that is home to about 15,000 African refugees, life in the city is not much easier. On a bench outside the low, white refugee service building, Zahara Yuseff said she was told to leave the Kharaz camp five days after she arrived, exhausted and beaten.

She is 21 and single, and she was told to move to the city to get a job. “They said, ‘If you are alone, you don’t get anything with us,’ ” she said. “If you are a family, you can stay.”

A month later she has no job or prospects. Desperately poor and without a nationality, refugees in Basateen say they are almost as trapped as the residents of Kharaz camp.

In other Yemeni cities, refugees say they face constant discrimination. Abi Abyah al-Manah, an Ethiopian refugee who heads the Mandated Refugee Association in the capital San’a says Africans are subjected to arbitrary arrests, violence, sexual violence and extortion by the authorities and the local people.

“No one feels sympathy if someone dies over there, because we are Africans,” he said.

Refugees in all three locations said what they really want is to be resettled in a third country. But, according to UNHCR’s Ms. Lim, there are far more refugees than there are countries willing to take them. “The possibilities are very limited,” she said.

The spike in refugees arriving on Yemeni shores this year is largely due to an increasing number of Ethiopians. A four-year-old drought in East Africa has left more than 6 million Ethiopians in need of emergency aid and killed almost 130 people in the first half of this year alone, according to Oxfam International.

But Mr. al-Manah said people are also fleeing Ethiopia because they fear violence or arrest as May 2010 elections approach. In 2005, during the last election period, 200 protesters were killed and at least 100 political leaders were arrested.

“There is a shadow of fear,” he said.

Recent arrivals from Somalia said they left their homes after family members were killed by al Shabab, a growing Islamist militia attempting to take over Somalia and enforce its strict interpretation of Islamic law. Al Shabab is closely tied to al Qaeda and able to draw recruits from all over the world, including ethnic Somalis in the United States.

While many people at Kharaz camp are occupied with desperate attempts to find a way out, others have given up hope for a better life in Yemen.

Mohammed Ahmed Ibrahim, a tall and skinny young man with a sad smile, said individual refugees without family scramble to find enough food to survive in the camp. In the cities, if a Somali can find a job, it is cleaning Yemeni bathrooms.

Journalists and NGO workers come to the camp regularly, he said. They ask questions and take notes, but life in the searing desert plods along without change. “You can write something about us,” said Mr. Ibrahim. “But nobody will help. There is no future here.”

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