Kharaz Refugee Camp: Various stories and one plight [Archives:2007/1028/Reportage]

February 26 2007
UNHCRs Kharaz camp houses more than 9,000 refugees who live in tents, and brick cement shelters.
UNHCRs Kharaz camp houses more than 9,000 refugees who live in tents, and brick cement shelters.
Photo from archived article: photos/1028/report1_2
Photo from archived article: photos/1028/report1_2
Children refugees joined camps school.
Children refugees joined camps school.
Amel Al-Ariqi
[email protected]

“I've been here since 1994. This camp has become my home and my children's country,” says 55-year-old Abdullah Sharif Hussein, talking about Kharaz Refugee Camp, a former military base the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees rehabilitated to receive African asylum-seekers.

Hussein is like many Somalis who have migrated from their country since their government collapsed and armed conflicts broke out in 1991, arriving at the port of Bossaso to buy passage on a small vessel to Yemen, where they receive automatic asylum.

“My wife gave birth to four children in the camp. My oldest son and daughter got married in the camp and each have eight children. Because my son left the camp seeking a job in Aden and my daughter got divorced, I became head of a family consisting of more than 25 persons,” he explains.

A well-known trader in Somalia, Hussein was forced to flee with his wife and four children, leaving behind his house, his trade and his relatives. “I still remember that day when armed forces broke into my home, shot my arm, kicked me and my children out of our house and stole my money and property, forcing me to leave Somalia,” he recounted, noting that he paid $300 for him and his family to leave Somalia for Yemen.

Hussein is one of few refugees to endure at Kharaz Camp, as most (particularly singles) leave within three months. The most recent 2006 statistics reveal that the camp houses 9,297, consisting of 8,562 Somalis and 735 Ethiopians. However, the high mobility of the refugee population is a constraint to obtaining accurate data.

Kharaz Camp is located in an isolated semi-arid area in Lahj governorate (approximately 100 miles west of Yemen's commercial capital of Aden) with harsh climatic conditions and scarce job opportunities; therefore, a large number of refugees move between Kharaz and surrounding areas in Lahj and Aden governorates in search of work and better living conditions.

UNHCR community services officer Laura Buffoni says only five percent of refugees who pass through decide to remain at the camp.

According to 2006 UNHCR statistics, the refugee population permanently living in Kharaz Camp is composed mainly of vulnerable individuals dependant upon UNHCR assistance. The majority of refugees are women and children. More than 60 percent of the total population is under age 18 and women head up to 50 percent of families in the camp.

Way into and out of the camp

No one knows for sure how many Africans have made their way to Yemen. The final months of 2006 witnessed a significant increase in the number of new Somali arrivals. UNHCR registered 25,898 Somali migrants to Yemen in 2006. With 2,400 kilometers of Yemeni coastline, it's likely that far more have arrived about whom UNHCR is unaware. Of those officially recorded, no fewer than 13,000 crossed the Gulf of Aden after Sept. 1 when the stormy summer season ended.

The number of new Ethiopian arrivals also was substantial, with at least 12,000 arriving on Yemeni shores last year. In total, an estimated 95,000 refugees were present in Yemen at the end of December 2006.

The main point of entry is the coastal village of Bir Ali, which lies opposite the

Somali port of Bossaso and is the most important of 15 main entry points along Yemen's coastline.

UNHCR operates a reception center at Mayfa'a near Bir Ali. “Refugees and asylum seekers are registered here and provided basic assistance, including accommodation, food and medical care,” explains UNHCR field specialist Aouad Baobid, adding that UNHCR also began providing transportation for all refugees wanting to reside in Kharaz Camp.

“Not all migrants make their way to the center because many are killed or drowned in the sea. Others choose to go straight to Sana'a, Aden or the northern border with Saudi Arabia,” he noted.

UNHCR says that some 80 percent of Somalis it interviewed upon arrival indicate that they plan to move on to Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states in search of employment.

Surviving in the camp

However, not everyone survives outside the camp. Shopta, 27, got a job as a housemaid in Aden for three years, while her husband worked as a car washer in the same city. “We couldn't stay in Aden for long because I became sick. My husband also faced many difficult circumstances because it's more expensive living in Aden,” she explained.

Although Shobta and her small children faced death during their 2002 sea crossing, her suffering didn't end. “I fled with my little children, leaving behind my husband. I gave the smugglers $150 to let us board the small open fishing boat. I don't remember how many people were there, but I do remember that it was packed tightly with passengers and the smell was incredible,” she narrated.

“The smugglers beat us with sticks if we moved, even killing two men and throwing their bodies overboard. I lost consciousness many times believing that we weren't going to make it,” she recounted.

“After three days at sea, we arrived at the beach and then UNHCR workers put us in the camp. Twenty days later, my husband arrived and I thought we'd be OK, but look at us, we're still suffering,” Shopta says, pointing to the wet, bare floor in her tent.

Shopta is one of many refugees still living in a tent inside the camp and she considers this “unfair treatment.”

Kharaz Camp is divided into three zones. One zone has reception tents for new arrivals, who are given cooked meals and other basic assistance during their stay in the reception area. Those who settle in the camp have shelters built of cement brick. Other refugees make their own tents using pieces of their clothing until UNHCR builds them a house or they leave the camp.

Two classes

Some refugees prefer to start their own business inside the camp. “There are two types of people inside the camp: those who are comfortable because their relatives outside of Yemen send them money whereby they can buy goats and chickens to feed their families or they can use the money to establish their own stores and run a business – in addition to the UNCHR assistance. The other refugees only subsist on the UNHCR aid,” 17-year-old Kalthum Basher explains, considering herself part of the latter class.

As a child, Basher joined the camp's primary and secondary schools. The curriculum, which is the same taught in Yemeni schools, is available in both Arabic and Somali. Needy children receive school uniforms, books and supplies.

Because the camp has no high school, Basher and others have been going to a nearby village to complete their studies. Basher also attended programs at the camp's Community Center, including English and computer courses.

Able to speak Arabic, English and Somali, Basher recalled, “After I finished high school, I wanted to enter college; however since my family is very poor and can't cover the expenses of my studying, I decided to work as a housemaid in Aden and save money for me and my family while studying at the same time. But the house owner where I worked didn't allow me to study, so I returned to the camp.

“I want to study at university. I want to get a respectable career and support my family. I want to get out of the camp and live with my family in a good comfortable house. I have many dreams and ambitions, but under these difficult conditions, I don't know if my dreams can come true,” she concluded.

Difficult conditions, but good health

Despite the difficult conditions in which camp refugees live, the fatality rate – especially among mothers – isn't high compared to the maternal mortality rate among Yemenis outside the camp, Buffoni notes. “I believe the camp clinic offers good medical services,” she adds.

The clinic is divided into three sections: a childbirth and women's section, a children's section and a chronic diseases section. “Besides medical services, the clinic offers awareness programs on HIV/AIDS, family planning and nutrition for vulnerable groups within the camp, such as women and children,” points out gynecologist Dr. Fawzia Abduh Naji, adding that such programs help camp residents avoid many diseases. “For example, many children were suffering malnutrition, but now the clinic only sees a few malnutrition cases,” she noted.

Regarding family planning, Naji says the clinic arranges regular lectures and seminars in an attempt to attract refugees' attention to the importance of the issue. “We distribute 350 condoms per month. We also provide camp women with IUDs, pills and injections and educate them on the importance of family planning. However, only 20 percent of those attending the clinic are practicing family planning methods,” she notes.

“The situation is better now. In the past, we were handling approximately 42 deliveries per month, but now, there are only about 20 deliveries at the clinic,” Naji added.

Nadhifa, the clinic's only midwife who is described as “the camp mother,” points out that the difficult environmental conditions camp residents live in cause them to be at high risk of infection by serious diseases. “In summer and due to the high temperatures, many pregnant women are exposed to miscarriage. Many pregnant women and children also arrive at the clinic suffering malaria, anemia, high blood pleasure and typhoid,” Nadhifa explained.

The clinic can't treat serious cases, so the camp's UNHCR office transports such cases to Aden hospitals for treatment.

Mental disease and disabilities

“My grandson refuses to leave the house. He's naked all the time and the other camp children call him crazy,” says Hussein, describing the mental disease his 7-year-old grandson has suffered since he was four months old. “It happened when the boat he was on sank. We thought he had drowned, but we later found him on the beach. Since that time, he's never gotten better,” he added.

Hussein's grandson can't attend the camp school because he can't learn like the other children and he can't do anything himself. However, he isn't the only camp child with as disability, as there are 76 children suffering various types of disabilities. “We're now working with Save the Children to establish a program to help these children,” Buffoni said.

In the camp, refugees may not consider disability a big problem as much as their biggest challenge of surviving. “This month, three women got angry. They lost their tempers, shouting things we didn't understand,” affirmed Basher, adding that the dramatic events most refugees experienced during the armed conflicts in their countries or on their hazardous sea crossing, besides the poverty they suffer inside the camp, all contribute to driving them to depression.

In an attempt to share their problems, refugee women are participating in a Women's Committee, wherein they discuss their problems and needs, according to Basher.

Still hungry

UNHCR cooperates with the World Food Program in Yemen to provide camp residents with monthly food rations. Still, some refugees say the share is insufficient. “Monthly, each individual only receives half a kilo of sugar, five kilos of rice, half a liter of oil, half a kilo of lentils and nine kilos of wheat flour, but that isn't enough, especially for large families,” Hussein notes.

Enemies yesterday, friends today

Although there are approximately 43 security personnel in Kharaz Camp, it's rare to see conflicts among camp residents, all of whom are fleeing the seemingly endless cycle of violent conflicts in their countries.

“So far, we haven't seen or heard any serious incidents inside the camp. In fact, some of the new arrivals are the same ones who kicked us out of our houses in Somalia. Now we're all refugees in the same camp and we're all trying barely to survive,” Hussein concluded.