Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Urban Somali Refugees in Yemen

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Urban Somali Refugees in Yemen

Article excerpt

Being an urban refugee in Yemen brings far fewer benefits than being in a camp - and scarcely more opportunities.

Yemen shares characteristics with many other countries hosting urban refugees: lack of durable solutions; challenges of quantifying populations; a host government evading Convention responsibilities; hostility from a once-welcoming host community; political interference in choice of implementing partners; and, most fundamentally, inadequate provision of protection, food, health care and education.

The great majority of urban-based refugees in Yemen are Somali, although there are also substantial numbers of Ethiopians, Eritreans and Iraqis. In 2008 over 50,000 Somalis arrived in Yemen - a 70% increase from 2007 - as increasing numbers flee conflict between the government of Ethiopia and Oromo insurgents.

The Yemeni public generally takes pride in the fact that Yemen welcomes Somali refugees while its richer Arabian neighbours turn them away. Yemenis believe this indicates their greater adherence to the deeply-rooted Islamic duty to offer shelter to those fleeing persecution. Few are aware that Yemen - the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol - is obliged by international law to accord everyone the right to seek asylum. However, Yemen has not enacted national refugee legislation, and refugee matters are dealt with on an ad hoc basis. In June 2009, after prolonged advocacy by UNHCR, the government established a Ministry of Refugee Affairs but there is considerable uncertainty about its role.

There are no durable solutions for Somalis. In 2008 only 40 Somalis voluntarily repatriated. Resettlement is not a viable option - in the first half of 2009 a mere 164 Somalis were resettled - and the Yemeni government has repeatedly stressed its opposition to local integration. Somalis with over 20 years' documented residence have failed in attempts to apply for Yemeni citizenship.

While UNHCR has data on Somalis who present themselves to reception centres it has no means of estimating the number of Somalis who subsequently leave Yemen or who reside outside the country's only refugee camp, Kharaz, situated in a bleak region west of Aden. The Yemeni government often asserts that there are 800,000 Somali refugees. UNHCR reported that at the end of June 2009 there were 154,009 refugees in Yemen: 13,143 in Kharaz and the remainder in urban areas. UNHCR staff, however, unofficially acknowledge their reliance on guesswork.

Discrepancy between Yemeni government and UNHCR statistics is complicated by the numbers of muwalidiin - people of mixed Yemeni and Somali/Ethiopian descent. For centuries Yemeni traders have lived in the Horn of Africa while maintaining links with the homeland. Since the 1980s, considerable numbers of muwalidiin have been returning to Yemen as a result of conflicts and disruption to trade. Many have settled in urban areas and been acknowledged as Yemenis, often despite lacking official identity papers. While the muwalidiin are often stigmatised by Yemenis, they nevertheless have a higher social status than Somalis and Ethiopians in a nation with deeply entrenched, inherently racist, concepts of social hierarchy. Many Somali refugees believe that the government of Yemen and UNHCR privilege the muwalidiin, claiming that most of those resettled have falsely presented themselves as refugees.

Refugee entitlements

There is considerable discrepancy between the rights which the government of Yemen asserts are enjoyed by Somali refugees and refugee testimonies. The government argues that no restrictions are placed on Somalis seeking employment, health care or education but refugees point to a range of restrictions and shortcomings.

Employment: In a nation with massive un- and under-employment, few male refugees can find regular work. In Sana'a they make money by washing cars or emptying latrines. …

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