Tens of thousands of East African refugees and asylum-seekers are at risk of being left behind in Yemen’s roiling violence, deprived not only of safe options for evacuation but also of a home country that might take them in, activists and U.N. officials said this week.
Since pitched fighting between Yemen’s Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the ousted president erupted in March, escape from the country has been arduous even for foreign citizens and wealthy Yemenis. Airports are under fire and commercial transportation cut off, forcing the most desperate to charter simple power boats and make harrowing journeys across the Red Sea.
But for the over 250,000 registered Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees and asylum-seekers, the situation is even more trying. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners have a contingency plan to receive 100,000 refugees in Somalia’s relatively stable regions of Somaliland and Puntland, and another 30,000 in Djibouti, but that process will unfold over the next six months. And it is barely underway.
“The reality is that there are limited options for people to get out,” said Charlotte Ridung, the Officer-in-Charge for the UNHCR in Yemen. “Some have fled by boat, but many ports are closed, and fuel is an issue so the options for escape are indeed limited.”
As gunbattles and aerial bombardment engulf the port city of Aden, at least 2,000 people have fled urban areas to take shelter in the nearby Kharraz refugee camp, Ridung said. Thousands more refugees and Yemenis alike have begun to make the dangerous voyage across the water, including 915 people who fronted $50 each for boats from the Yemeni port of Mukha to Somalia — among them Somalis returning home for the first time in decades.
There, the UNHCR registered "women and children who arrived extremely thirsty and asking for water," Ridung said. They included a pregnant woman who was immediately transferred to a hospital to deliver her baby.
Meanwhile, asylum-seekers and migrants traveling in the opposite direction from East Africa continue to arrive in war-wracked Yemen. Last Sunday, the UNHCR registered another 251 people, mostly Ethiopians and Somalis, who arrived by boat at the port city of Mayfa’a. Whether they were unaware of the violence in Yemen or hopeful mass evacuations from the country might take them somewhere safer is unclear.
“Many people think when they reach Yemen they’ll get passage to Europe right away, but it is wrong information,” said Sana Mohamed Nour, 21, an Eritrean refugee and community leader in the Yemeni capital city of Sanaa. "We are trying our best to get out."
For those like Nour, whose parents brought her to Yemen from politically oppressive Eritrea when she was just an infant, Yemen's violence has made the daily hardships of refuge that much worse. Many refugees, who are only able to find informal work as maids, construction workers or day laborers, have lost their jobs in recent weeks as businesses shut down and people hole up in their homes, she said. “At night, we can’t sleep. And when we go out during the day, we’ll be asked for ID or passport [by security forces], and there’s a lot of people [being] taken to prison.”
The options for escaping Yemen are somewhat more acceptable for Somalis, the largest refugee contingent in Yemen at over 236,000, according to UNHCR estimates. While violence has plagued Somalia since the early 1990s — including the Al-Qaeda-linked Al-Shabab insurgency that still terrorizes pockets of the country — many Somali refugees have taken the war in Yemen as their cue to finally return — if not to their home towns, then to the relatively stable Somaliand and Puntland regions.
The situation is different for political refugees, who include most of the over 14,000 Eritrean and Ethiopian refugees or asylum-seekers left in Yemen. They say returning home would mean political persecution, imprisonment or violence. “The Somali refugees can go back to their home country, because there was no problem, and it will take them,” said Abdulmalik Mohamed Ahmed, a 42-year-old ethnic Oromo refugee from Ethiopia, who lives in Aden with his five children. “But we have no place or country to welcome us. We are just waiting.”
Ahmed said many of the estimated thousands of Oromos in Yemen are fearful that the Ethiopian government — which denies it persecutes Oromos and considers them economic migrants — will try to use evacuation efforts to whisk his people back home and perhaps into prison. In recent days Ethiopian embassy officials have deployed in Oromo neighborhoods in Aden, hoping to round up volunteers for government-run charter flights back to Ethiopia, he said.
But the idea of relocating anywhere in the Horn of Africa, as the U.N. is planning, is unfeasible, Ahmed said. Somalia, which borders Ethiopia to the east, is within reach of the government in Addis Ababa that imprisoned Ahmed once and still holds his father. “If we go back it is clear, we will face our fate there," he said.
The U.N. has told refugee community leaders that it is “working on” getting them out, Nour said, but there has been little sign of progress. Members of the Eritrean diaspora have been called upon to help negotiate transportation for refugees, but she fears "no one else is talking about refugees in Yemen."
"We are waiting, and every day the situation gets worse."