African refugees: We are discarded in YemenUNHCR: Refugees’ lives aren’t easy [Archives:2007/1061/Reportage]

June 18 2007
Female African immigrants attempt to integrate into Yemeni society by wearing Yemeni dress; however, they say many Yemenis still look down on them.
Female African immigrants attempt to integrate into Yemeni society by wearing Yemeni dress; however, they say many Yemenis still look down on them.
By: Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

“I heard him call me Sudanese, so I turned to look at him and said, 'I'm not Sudanese!'” recounts 9-year-old Hayat, describing the reason for the deep wound on her head, “When I did that, he threw a large stone at me and then I felt the blood running down my face.”

That wasn't the first time Hayat had been called “Habashiya,” Sudanese, black and other names discriminatingly referring to her African origins and black skin color.

She must live with the fact that, as an African refugee in Yemen, she may encounter difficulties integrating with others, but she and her mother never imagined the discrimination and violence they are subjected to now.

“I fled Ethiopia seeking a better job and a safer life in Yemen; however, every passing day is a challenge for me and my daughter just to survive,” said Hayat's mother Aisha, who confirmed that after this incident happened to her daughter, she was forced to leave her neighborhood.

“That day, I went to the police station, complaining about the boy who injured my daughter and requesting my right of protection. However, instead of protection, the boy's brother beat and humiliated me in front of security personnel, who did nothing to stop it. Finally, the police advised me to reconcile with the boy's family in order to avoid problems. When I returned home, the neighbors already had made up their minds to evict me from the rental house I was in,” she recalled, hugging her daughter, who had started crying.

“I was raped by Yemeni policemen.”

Hayat's tears are evidence of the difficult psychological situations African refugees suffer in Yemen, commented Abiy Abeb, representative of the Mandate Refugees Association. He pointed out that many African refugees in Yemen experience extortion, harassment, beatings, arbitrary arrest, detention and sexual violence at the hands of both security forces as well as the local population.

Abeb introduced S.Y., a 26-year-old female Ethiopian refugee who refused to talk, noting that hers is a “very special case.” After a few moments of hesitation, she proffered several papers, saying, “Read these and you'll know my problem.”

Among the papers were messages directed to the UNHCR office in Sana'a and a medical report from the Mental Health Hospital in Sana'a. According to the papers, S.Y. was raped by three Yemeni police officers.

“What happened to me was shameful as a woman. I've tried to cover it up and keep it a secret, but they approached me again and threatened me. I was forced to inform the UNHCR office too,” S.Y. had written in a letter, adding that after the incident, she quit her job and stayed at home, scared to go out and refusing to answer the door.

“I felt like I was in prison,” she said, adding, “I fled my country in order to save my life and go to a peaceful place, but unfortunately, I found that Yemen itself is not safe and secure for me, as I expected.”

The medical report revealed that S.Y. has severe anxiety, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and must take medication until her condition improves. “I'd like to publish my suffering in every newspaper, magazine, local and international NGO to ensure that what happened to me won't happen to other female refugees in Yemen,” she said, requesting UNHCR help to bring her case against the three policemen to court.

Unfortunately, S.Y. isn't the only African refugee claiming that she was raped by Yemeni security. Last year, three female refugees accused policemen of sexual abuse and rape during a sit-in in front of the UNHCR office in Sana'a. While Yemen's Interior Ministry refused the accusations, the attorney general directed investigating their cases; however, due to the women's fear, they never attended court.

“I have HIV. Take my daughter, please.”

In 2006, an officer at the anti-AIDS authority stated to the media that most HIV- and AIDS-infected individuals in Yemen are African. However, numerous experts refuted this statement, confirming that available statistics reveal that there are more AIDS cases among Yemenis than among Africans.

Despite such confirmation, Yemenis began viewing African immigrants as “AIDS carriers,” dealing with them cautiously. This in turn has led many immigrants to avoid AIDS testing.

E.A. was unable to hide her HIV infection, especially as her husband died of AIDS. The UNHCR office subjected her and her 5-year-old daughter to medical testing, which revealed her infection, but her daughter was clean.

“UNHCR gave me and my daughter YR 12,000 (approximately $70) and being a special case, they housed us with two other AIDS patients,” E.A. said, noting that such sum doesn't cover her and her daughter's basic food and medication needs.

Furthermore, she insists that her daughter's life is at risk due to the atmosphere in which they are living. “I'm trying not to do anything that may give her AIDS, but I'm not sure about the roommates because they are in very bad condition and vomiting blood. I'm scared that my daughter will become infected in some way. I went to the refugee office and asked them to take my daughter, but they refused,” E.A. said, affirming that her condition as an HIV-infected refugee makes her life more difficult in Yemen.

“I try to hide my situation. I'm sure if anyone in my neighborhood knew about my disease, they would attack me and my daughter,” she said, expressing her fears for her daughter's future.

Difficult economic conditions affect all

In his article, “From Somali to Yemen: great dangers, few prospects,” Hanno van Gemund reviewed the risks refugees face during their journey from the Somali port of Bossaso to Yemen. Gemund, who is a lawyer and an expert in refugees' affairs, referred to the fact that refugees are directly affected by Yemen's harsh economic circumstances.”Things are getting worse. Poverty has increased dramatically in Yemen, while the population has grown two and a half times since 1975. A growing number of Yemenis have no access to adequate housing, safe drinking water, healthcare services, education and sufficient nutrition. The country's natural resources are overexploited and at risk of being depleted,” Gemund wrote.He continued, “Despite having the right to work and assistance from UNHCR and its implementing partners, life for urban refugees is hard. Yemen itself has a huge unemployment rate.”A few years ago, thousands of Somalis lost their jobs as teachers thanks to a government campaign offering those jobs to Yemeni citizens. Somali men now are fortunate if they can find daily labor jobs in road or sewer construction and cleaning or make some money by washing cars.”He added, “Both Somali and Ethiopian women often find work as domestic workers in Yemeni households, but are severely underpaid and often work in very difficult circumstances.”

Gemund explained that despite such refugees' evident contributions to Yemen's economy, coupled with the very limited cost to the Yemeni government – as UNHCR secures funds for most health and other services – public opinion toward refugees is growing increasingly hostile.”Discrimination against peoples of African origin is widespread,” Gemund confirmed, noting that progress on incorporating the Refugee Convention into national legislation has been slower than expected, with the draft law still being discussed in Parliament.

Who is responsible?

Yemen, the only Arabian Peninsula nation to sign UNHCR's 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol related to the status of refugees, has granted prima facie refugee status to Somalis arriving in the country since the civil war in Somalia.

However, Ethiopian and Eritrean asylum seekers don't qualify for refugee status upon entry into Yemen, instead being required to go through UNHCR's refugee status determination process.

Currently, many non-Somali asylum seekers don't even get a chance to be interviewed by UNHCR, as Yemeni officials have told UNHCR that all non-Somali new arrivals will be detained and deported to their home countries. Consequently, most Ethiopians are detained upon arrival and await deportment.

UNHCR has urged the Yemeni government to respect its international obligations and continue keeping its doors open to other nationals. The state has assured UNHCR that repatriation can only take place voluntarily; thus, UNHCR has reiterated its willingness to assist with screening and registering all new arrivals.

“What we need is protection,” insist Abeb and Beshir Hassan, representatives from the Mandate Refugees Association, which was established in 2004. Abeb and Hassan extensively criticized the performance of UNHCR staff in Sana'a and stress the urgent need for protecting refugees, especially those already victims of psychological and physical attack, such as attempted murder.

“The association, consisting of 60 refugees at that time, delivered hundreds of letters to UNHCR, to the government of their asylum country – Yemen – and to the international community in order to present their basic demands, but alas, nothing was achieved,” Abeb lamented.

Abeb and Hassan went on to say that UNHCR itself is “one of the persecutors,” explaining that they informed the Yemeni government many times, particularly the Human Rights Ministry, which in turn suggested UNHCR offer a durable solution to the refugees.

“However, the UNHCR office representative sent official letters stating that we are rubbish, degrading us and trampling our human rights with nasty words, as if we aren't refugees. But the truth is, we are recognized political asylum seekers,” Abeb said, recounting the daily discrimination and harassment they face in Yemen due to their Christianity and their skin color

“Our children don't go to school and our women have no right to wear their cultural clothing. We're scared day and night that our women and children may experience sexual abuse,” he concluded.

Not an easy life

UNHCR senior protection officer Samer Haddadin maintains that his office is cooperating with involved ministries and authorities, including the interior, foreign and human rights ministries, as well as the passport and immigration authority, to better protect refugees in Yemen.

Pointing out that the office has both male and female counselors to handle refugees and their complaints, he notes, “We are working with our partners through our channels to solve these problems; however, if such cases don't reach our office, how can we solve them?”

Haddadin commented that refugees' lives aren't easy in general and being at risk of racial and/or religious discrimination is one of many obstacles refugees face – not just in Yemen, but worldwide.

Additionally, he emphasized the media's role in highlighting refugees' lives and increasing Yemeni citizens' awareness regarding refugees' rights and duties.

“We don't expect refugees and asylum seekers to come and show their appreciation to us because we know their lives aren't easy. Our mission simply is to find solutions for them and our challenge is to come to that day when we won't need to exist,” he concluded.