Ethiopian sit-in drags onMonth two [Archives:2004/719/Local News]

March 11 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The sit-in of around 200 Ethiopian refugees in Sana'a has entered its second month with no end in sight.
The protesting Ethiopians are camped out just outside the headquarters of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Sana'a.
And the refugees, who started their sit-in on Feb. 10, say they'll stay indefinitely unless their demands are met.
“We will stay until we get a clear and tangible solution,” says one of the refugees Adane Belachew. “There is still a big question: Who is responsible? We are waiting for someone to step forward and be responsible for the condition of the refugees and end our suffering that has lasted for years.”
The refugees, who have lived in Yemen since 1991, are demanding citizenship in Yemen or be resettled in another country.
According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has a department dealing with African refugees, the refugees can continue living in Yemen under refugee status but did not show interest in offering the refugees citizenship. At the end of February, UNHCR offered the group assistance to begin the process of trying to be resettled elsewhere.
The refugees participating in the protest rejected UNHCR's offer. They claim that it was not clear if the procedures would meet their demands.
“It is important for everything to be clear,” said Belachew. “Does the Yemeni government want us to be integrated or not? We did not receive a direct message from the government. UNHCR asked us to fill out forms asking us if we want to get local integration or resettled. UNHCR must speak with the host country and get an answer. The only information we received from UNHCR was to fill out a registration form. What we want is a tangible solution.”
Camping out for over a month has taken a toll on the refugees. Their meals are cooked in a makeshift kitchen, they have no access to a bathroom and they sleep in sleeping bags or bedrolls every night outdoors. Over a half-dozen refugees have become ill, including one who had to go to a hospital suffering from pneumonia.
“All of us are tired. We are physically and mentally exhausted,” said Yassin Mohammed Lejisso, one of the Ethiopian refugees participating in the sit-in. “I have lost weight and my strength, and it is now becoming easier for us to get sick.”
The refugees have not received assistance from NGOs stationed in the capital. There was only one short visit from Red Crescent during the first week of the sit-in. According to a representative of the refugees, they sent several letters to the ICRC office in Sana'a concerning their physical condition but did not receive a response.
The refugees state that they chose to carry out their sit-in next to UNHCR's headquarters because after living in Yemen as refugees for over a decade with no clear future on gaining citizenship, they want UNHCR to find a solution.
“We have no access or freedom to deal with our plight,” said one of the refugees Belay Merid Alemie. “UNHCR is our only intermediary, and its job is to help refugees.”
UNHCR claims that it has fulfilled its obligations: It is a facilitator and has assisted the refugees in gaining basic rights and freedom in Yemen and has encouraged the Yemeni government to give the Ethiopians citizenship. It is also able to assist the refugees seeking resettlement outside of Yemen.
“UNHCR cannot offer citizenship to refugees. It is the responsibility of a host country,” said Zivan Damato, Administration Officer at UNHCR in Sana'a. “And UNHCR cannot offer a refugee any resettlement status because that decision rests on the shoulders of another country.”
Damato added that the assistance offered by UNHCR to the refugees camping out has been affected by lack of cooperation by the refugees.
“Their frustrations are certainly understandable, and UNHCR wishes to attempt to find a solution,” said Damato. “However, it seems the representatives of the refugees don't represent the better interests of the people. They have actively and deliberately obstructed allowing UNHCR to assist them or to let many of the refugees contact UNHCR.”
One example Damato gave was the refugees refusing to fill out the registration forms offered at the end of last month. He said that without forms being filled out, UNHCR will not be able to take further steps in assisting the refugees seeking nationality in Yemen or in another country. Some refugees have complained that they did want to fill out the forms but their representative did not allow them to do so.
If the Yemeni government is reluctant to give full integration to the refugees, finding a home in another country will be difficult. There are 22 million refugees around the world and only 3,000 succeed in being resettled each year.
The refugees involved in the sit-in may find it even more difficult to gain citizenship in Yemen or elsewhere. They are members of Ethiopian Naval and Civilian Refugees (ENCR) and represent around 600 Ethiopians that defected their country. They handed over 14 warships to the Yemeni government when they arrived.
Many countries are careful dealing with refugees that have been in the military in their original country since, as one foreign diplomat put it, they are considered “political liabilities.” The Yemeni government and UNHCR have shown concern working with members of ENCR due to the sensitivity of the relationship between Yemen and Ethiopia.
But if no immediate solution is found to meet the demands of the refugees, the sit-in may not end soon.
“If there is no solution, we are willing to die here outside UNHCR,” said Alemie “We want a solution or to die.”