Present Ethiopan sit-in has been smoldering for yearsClaims . . . and counter-claims [Archives:2004/714/Front Page]

February 23 2004

By Jamil Abdul Karim
Yemen Times Staff

As the sit-in by Ethiopian refugees in front of the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) headquarters in Sana'a continues, it's becoming clearer just how much the tension between the two sides has been brewing for years.
The saga started 13 years ago when about 940 Ethiopians, comprised of naval officers and their families, defected, leaving what they claim were 14 warships for the Yemeni government after saying goodbye to their war-torn homeland.
The Ethiopians were patrolling in waters near Yemen, at the time, so chose the MidEast country as the country in which to find refuge. That was 1991.
Soon after they arrived in Yemen, the UNHCR, which has a mandate to ensure that basic rights of refugees are met, tried to close the file on the Ethiopians. It began a three-year repatriation program when the fires of Ethiopia's civil war cooled, and human rights improved.
Hundreds of Ethiopians had returned to their home by 1995.
The hope was that those who stayed in Yemen would find steady work, resident visas and work permits, in short a new identity which would give them, in the UNHCR's eyes, the status of legal immigrants.
In an April 4, 1995, memo obtained by The Yemen Times, the UNHCR said that “all material assistance which is not of emergency, life-saving nature, and does not relate to durable solutions (i.e. voluntary repatriation or local integration) will cease by June 30, 1995.
Now it's unclear exactly how many Ethiopians remain in Yemen. But protesters in front of the UNHCR are saying the office has let them down.
They have been left without work permits from Yemen's labour office, and thus have to work illegally, and they also can't travel in the region without proper papers, and they can't practice full freedom of religion, primary Christianity, according to their complaints.
And they get more alarming. In a letter to Yemeni officials, with a copy to the US Embassy, they claim as many as 34 of their friends have disappeared, to their “great concern.”
One former naval officer was killed by an axe, and another poisoned, according to the letter, which claims that half of the 71 Ethiopians who have died of the original group of refugees have been buried in Yemen against their will.
“Indeed, we are in a state of apprehension and don't know what will happen to us next,” states the letter, which concludes by noting the address of the writers is simply “outside the premise of the UNHCR office.”
One specific spark which led to the sit-in was the recent death of an Ethiopian who couldn't get medical help, without its cost of YR 50,000, or $270. The curable illness led to a seizure which killed him, according to the letter which puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of UNHCR, noting that “the silence of the UNHCR branch office has driven us to despair.
In its defense, the UNHCR wrote to Yemen's Human Rights Minister Amat Al-Aleem Assosoah in August 2003 noting that Yemen's government formally recognized the Ethiopian refugees in 1991, which thus limits their role to ensuring the government is providing legal protection according to international standards.
That letter also notes that the UNHCR registered 47,000 Somali refugees from 2002-2003, and “the committee now is discussing the registration of a number of Ethiopian Naval refugees as soon as the final approval of competent entities in the Yemeni government is issued.”
It goes on to say the UNHCR hopes to gain approval of the Yemeni government “to register all refugees registered with the Commission, regardless of their nationalities.”
Yet at the same time the UNHCR letter points out that the “refugee” and “re-naturalization” status of some of the Ethiopians is in question, and “this matter makes their recognition or assistance out of the scope of work of this office.”
This UNHCR letter to the Human Right Minister also says that some of Ethiopians claims and allegations are lies, and when the Ethiopians give false claims in various letters, the letters “are endangering the interest of the country and its international reputation.
That has now caused the Ethiopians to retort in anger, that since a copy of the above UNHCR was sent to Yemen's Political Security Office, lives and safety of the Ethiopians have been all the more in danger.
“The Human Rights Minster understood our suffering, and she contacted the UNHCR. Why did the office then say what it did? That response (copied to the PSO) has put our lives in danger, because now we're deemed a security threat,” former medical cadet Yassin Mohammed told The Times.
Meanwhile, with a make-shift outdoor kitchen, the group of about 200 continue their sit-in in front of the UNHCR office without easy access to necessities like toilets. They also fear that their families – more than 300 Ethiopians who are mainly women and children – are in danger at their homes. It's those families who are bringing food and water to keep the protesters going.
Mohammed says it boils down to racial and religious discrimination. “The Somalians were supported by Arab League to travel, and have residence visas. But our embassy is working against us. We have no residence visas,” he said, adding that he knows of Sudanese refugees who have been resettled from Yemen to Australia.
We are not asking to be moved to America or Canada. We're just asking for our rights,” added Lt. Adane Belachew, another one of the original naval officers. “It's the responsibility of the UNHCR office to enforce the rules.