Medecins Sans Fronti’res: Yemen can’t cope with the refugee issue alone [Archives:2008/1170/Front Page]

July 7 2008

Wojoud Hasan Mejalli
For The Yemen Times

SANA'A, July 6 ) Medecins Sans Fronti'res, also known as Doctors without Borders, warns that the high influx of refugees and migrants poses a major challenge for Yemen.

“To date, the humanitarian response to those arriving at the shores, as well as to those refugees and migrants already in Yemen, has been far from adequate; thus, more international assistance is urgently needed,” according to a report by the initially French-based organization.

Alfonso Verdu Perez, head of the Medecins Sans Fronti'res mission, stated, “Despite been one of the poorest countries in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is responding better to this problem than many Western countries.

The magnitude of the crisis is so huge that the organization acknowledges the fact that Yemen can't cope with it alone. Thus, Yemen needs the support of donors and other governments, which is what Medecins Sans Fronti'res has asked numerous countries – the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Japan, Australia, etc. – with its report.

Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol, the only country in the Arabian Peninsula to have acceded to these international instruments.

With the escalating conflict in Somalia and the food crisis in parts of the Horn of Africa, the numbers of refugees are increasing. For instance, by the end of May, more than 20,000 Somalis and Ethiopians had crossed the Gulf of Aden, more than double the number for the same period last year, said MSF, adding that lacking safe and legal alternatives to leave their country, they are forced to use the services of smugglers to cross the gulf.

Medecins Sans Fronti'res has published its first report since beginning their official work in Yemen in March, although they've been operating a medical facility at the newly established Ahwar Reception Center in Abyan, where they've been offering new arrivals medical, psychological and humanitarian assistance since last September.

“UNCHR should increase its presence on the coast and assume a more proactive and stronger role in fulfilling its protection mandate,” the report stated, further pointing out that overall conditions at Ahwar Reception Center regarding registration, food and shelter still need to be improved. Additionally, new arrivals to the center frequently aren't given adequate information about the next steps and possibilities open to them.

According to the report, the refugees arrive exhausted, many of them ill and emotionally shattered, recounting harrowing stories of death and survival. For example, boats designed to carry 30 or 40 at most are crammed with more than 100 passengers, many of them stuck in small, windowless storage places in the hold, where they're forced to sit in the same position without moving and, in the large majority of cases, deprived of food and water.

Smugglers take extreme measures to avoid being detected by Yemeni security forces. In nearly half of those interviewed, refugee passengers reported that the smuggling boats didn't come close to the shore, so they were forced to disembark in deep water.

If passengers are afraid and refuse to jump, they are beaten and thrown into the sea. Because many people, especially those from the interior of Ethiopia and Somalia, can't swim, drowning deaths are frequent, with nearly one-third of respondents reporting deaths due to drowning.

The majority of smuggling boats approach the shoreline at night to avoid being spotted by the Yemeni military, which further exacerbates the risk of drowning.

The Medecins Sans Fronti'res report further notes that not only have many survivors suffered traumatic events themselves, they also have lost loved ones due to violence or drowning.

Many refugees also arrive with headaches and general body aches, physical manifestations of the psychological consequences of the extreme hardship of their journey.

The report further notes an increase in the diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections (12 instances between this past March and April), which could indicate sexual and gender-based violence, although no such cases have been reported to the Ahwar Reception Center clinic.