Ethiopians may get new home [Archives:2004/716/Front Page]

March 1 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

The 200 Ethiopian refugees who have been protesting with a sit-in in front of the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office in Sana'a, may be resettled outside of Yemen.
The startling revelation came from Yemen's foreign minister, after a meeting several days ago with UNHCR official Saad Al-Attar.
“UNHCR has decided to open the possibility for the refugees to find permanent residence in another country,” Qirbi told The Yemen Times.
This week, UNHCR distributed new registration forms to learn which refugees would like to be resettled in another country. Meetings will also be scheduled by the UNHCR to assist the refugees seeking to find a home outside Yemen.
The refugees have narrowed their demands down to obtaining Yemeni nationality. If that's not possible, they say they would accept being resettled in another country.
But interactions with the UNHCR have still been strained, as the Ethiopians still want clearer answers.
“We did not fill out the forms because it is not clear at all what will happen to us,” said one of the refugees Adane Belachew. “What we want is a solid, tangible solution. We prefer to gain nationality in Yemen. If not we would accept resettling in another country, but we would do that knowing that we would gain citizenship somewhere else.”
Belachew added that, “We will continue the sit-in until we witness a real solution.”
According to Qirbi, the refugees have the choice to remain as refugees in Yemen or make an attempt to be resettled.
“If they are not resettled, their presence in Yemen will continue under refugee status,” said Qirbi. “And if they wish to continue the sit-in, they can stay as long as there are not any disturbances.”
The Ethiopians' complaints include threats to be forcefully returned to Ethiopia, unjustified arrests and detention by local authorities, an inability to get work permits, religious persecution, the lack of proper education and health care, and no opportunity to receive Yemeni nationality or resettle in another country.
Al-Attar argues that under the 1951 Convention established by the UN, UNHCR's primary job is to support and monitor a host country on how it deals with refugees. He stressed that the ones protesting have received refugee status and have been granted basic rights and freedom in Yemen, which signed the 1951 Convention in 1980. He also said that those are considered the most important goals the UNHCR would like to see achieved in a host country.
Al-Attar adds that the government of a host country is responsible for deciding if refugees receive nationality while the UNHCR encourages the government to do so.
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The refugees also explain that they protest is against the UNHCR because they are trapped in the middle of international politics. They represent approximately 600 Ethiopians who defected their country 13 years ago. They were part of the Ethiopian Navy and handed over 14 warships to the Yemeni government when they arrived.
“We are ill-fated refugees,” said one refugee involved in the sit-in. “It is dangerous to talk about the way we are treated in Yemen because the Yemeni government could extradite us to Ethiopia if it wanted to. It is also better not to talk about the Ethiopian government since we are now in exile. Therefore, it is better not to place our demands on the Yemeni or the Ethiopian governments, but to go to the United Nations which has the ability to find and implement a solution.”
According to one government official, the relationship between Yemen and Ethiopia is important. The Yemeni government and the UNHCR have both expressed concern working with the refugees in the sit-in due to the sensitivity between Yemen and Ethiopia.
Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh visited the capital of Ethiopia last year, where Yemen, Ethiopia and Sudan agreed to form an alliance to fight terrorism.
Many countries are cautious dealing with refugees that have been in the military in their original country or were once involved in political movements.
If the refugees participating in the protest attempt resettling in another country, they might face difficulties.
According to a UNHCR report, there are approximately 22 million refugees worldwide. Countries that offer resettlement only give about 3,000 refugees a new home each year.