Plight of Ethiopian refugees must end [Archives:2004/722/Opinion]

March 22 2004

By Dr. Ahmed A. Moen*
[email protected]

I have read your news article on the “Plight of the Ethiopian Refugees” in Yemen. I am saddened and outraged to know that the Yemeni authorities failed to understand the implications of the stand off and the historical linkage and affinity between Ethiopia and Yemen. In fact, they should have automatically reciprocated with the kindness of the Ethiopian people regardless of the position of the incumbent Ethiopian Government. For centuries Ethiopians have welcomed Yemeni refugees fleeing, for various reasons, to Ethiopia and other neighboring countries. Political oppression and economic hardships have been the driving forces for migration from Yemen to Ethiopia. These two factors and the hospitality of the Ethiopian peoples have created the cultural bridges between Ethiopia and Yemen. Perhaps the younger generation of politicians ignore the importance of the depth of the historical affinity between these two nations since time immemorial. Even today, Yemenis live and work in Ethiopia, and many of the first and second generations of immigrant Yemenis have been granted Ethiopian citizenship for centuries. Of late, I understand, some Yemenis came back to claim their properties and legal status after they left Ethiopia because of the political uncertainties and regime changes.
The issue of granting permanent settlement and citizenship to the Ethiopian refuges who have lived for more than one decade in Yemen, and I believe that many of them have already established familial connections, married and mingled with the Yemeni society and economy, is a fundamental human rights issue, rather than a political demand and desire to be resettled and be accepted elsewhere. Their concern seems to be the unwelcoming attitudes and intolerance for the under-privileged and refugees from neighboring Ethiopia and Somalia. Islam as a religion was greeted everywhere outside Arabia because it valued asylum and freedom from persecution and economic wants is humanitarian and fundamental human rights. Prophet Mohamed [PBUH] invoked the name of Ethiopia as “the land of justice where no-one would be oppressed.” How would an Ethiopian who is proud of his history as the “Land of the First Hijra” be denied permanent settlement leading to citizenship in Yemen? It is ridiculous to pretend that waiting for the passage of new laws would give them new status and peace of mind. The callous attitude towards the Ethiopians and people of Ethiopian descents in Yemen has been a nagging issues for a long time and especially now because this case is a fundamental human rights issue by any measures. It is indeed hard for a Yemeni to claim that Ethiopians have not been kind to the Yemenis and their ancestors throughout history. The blood of these two nations are already mixed, their culture is identical and their affinity goes back into thousand years of history from the Queen of Sheba on and down to today. Very few Yemenis dare to draw the line between these two peoples. Even the Red Sea loses its meaning and international marks when it comes to the historical and familial connections between the Ethiopians and Yemenis.

It is the lack of political will and gratitude to the Ethiopian people who are denied recognition and protection at the time of their needs. This does not mean that the present government in Ethiopia violated the rights of the refugees and thus they should seek a way out or back at this point of time. It is a matter of choice and their fundamental human rights to live as free as possible on God's earth. Fundamental human rights assert that people must have an identity and a country where they can live, and belong to the adopted country regardless of race, religion or ethnic origin within international boundaries. That is the difference in the understanding of the value of fundamental human rights between Yemen and America, Australia, and Canada, which the protesters keep referring to in order to get a way out of their dilemma. People have the right to be citizens and be recognized not only in the industrially developed and affluent countries but anywhere where they have cultural and historical affinity. The ancient Yemenis understood the message of Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, when he authenticated the right of choice by sending his relatives to Ethiopia. How can one forget the Yemenis flying to greener Ethiopia during the Sabean times and until 1980s in search of freedom and economic welfare. One can imagine the life of the Yemenis changing when they were allowed to marry whom they wish, settle wherever they choose and their children become citizens of Ethiopia or any other country. One can imagine the Yemenis remitting extra money back to Yemen to support their families. One can imagine how much of the wealth in cities such as Taiz, Sanaa, Hodeidah and villages were built by Yemenis from Ethiopia and other parts of the world. How could one lose all of these historical and cultural links and favors? Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat its past mistakes. Gratitude is an important cultural and religious quality.

As a believer in the fundamental human rights and dignity of man, and as a follower of Islam that attributes its success in Africa, Asia and Europe to its moral values and just treatment of refugees. Guaranteeing refugees full citizenship and the right to live freeing as human beings is a higher moral obligation than any other act of charity. It is disheartening to see that Ethiopians in Yemen have unequal status and are denied their dignity for legal reasons. They are not seeking amnesty, they are just seeking to live in peace and establish an address and an identity at this time and age. Islam as a just religion protected even the polytheists who fled to the Muslim territories many centuries back. How come one chooses to ignore history just to be politically correct and be excused from practicing good judgment and justice regardless of the prevailing inconvenient international circumstances plaguing the world? History will judge the Yemenis by what they do now. The descendents of the Yemenis who scattered to every corner of the world from Indonesia to Malaysia and from Ethiopia and to Mauritania just to seek economic securities and freedom will witness how ungrateful is their ancestor's land. Now when tables have turned round and Ethiopians are seeking protection, we hear that Yemen is trying to create excuses to exclude them and deny their human rights to live in peace and dignity.
The policy must change and the Qur'an says: “Allah shall never change a condition of any people, lest they change first within their souls.” Change begins with the heart and Ethiopians are known to have greater hearts and are just when they accepted Yemeni refugees for centuries before and after Islam. Islam learned its history and respect for fundamental human rights outside Arabia by moving to Ethiopia rather than anywhere else. This is a distinction given to this great nation over all others by Prophet Mohammed, peace is upon him. It is a great nation and its people deserve better treatment. Justice for the Ethiopian refuges in Yemen is overdue. Any cover-up reason to deny peaceful people the right to live among the Yemenis is unacceptable and it is only right to be grateful for the Ethiopian people who gave much to Yemen at its time of need. Much is expected from those who receive.
Dr. Ahmed A. Moen is a prominent Professor at Howard University, Washington, D.C.