Refugees in Yemen: Stay in Jaheen or Go Back Home? [Archives:2001/13/Reportage]

March 26 2001

Mohammed Hatem Al-Qadhi &
Jalal Al-Sharaabi
Yemen Times
Organized by the Horn of Africa and Red Sea Strategic Studies Center and the General Center for Studies, Research and Publishing a one-day workshop was held last Monday on the problem of refugees in the horn of Africa and Red Sea. The event was attended by several scholars who presented some research papers.
The workshop focused on some topics pertaining to refugees like the problem of refuges and the impact on hosting countries, war and refugees, social problems faced by refugees, and the problems of refugees in the horn of Africa in general.
The flooding of refugees to Yemen from Somalia, Ethiopia and others has become a nagging problem. According to UNHCR records, 70,000 refugees poured into Yemen during the past few years. However, the real figure is more than that. This is due to the absence of statistics as refugees were stationed in different places randomly, and also because the UNHCR does not have any office outside Sanaa.
Statistics released by UNHCR indicates that the number of the Somali refugees in Yemen is higher then any other group. . They constitute 51,623, Eritrea(2674), Ethiopians(946) and Sudanese(87).
Around 87% of the Somali refugees in Yemen come from the southern parts, while 13% come from the north.
The refugees live in different areas in Yemen. Al-Jaheen Camp in Abyan is the biggest among others in Mukha, Maifaah in Shabwa and AL-Khawkha.
These refugees suffer from several diseases, malnutrition, and poverty as they do not receive enough support. Heads of the Somali refugees said that each one receives on a monthly basis 3,5 kilo of wheat, 600 g of sugar, 180 g of peas, and 750 g of cooking oil. They added that some charity societies chip in to help them to keep their body and soul together. These refugees told Yemen Times that they feel pressure to move to Kharaz Camp in Lahj which they resist strongly and prefer to go back home.
There are various reasons behind the refugees flooding Yemen like civil wars, hunger, poverty and other political reasons. Yemen received a flash flood of refugees during the past years despite its inability to accommodate them. This unanticipated flood caused problems for Yemen and the refugees. The exodus of refugees to Yemen is more often in an illegal way and has subjected Yemen’s ports to various kinds of piracy, as some people used to blackmail the refugees by giving assurances of taking them to Yemen. Many refugees were robbed of their money and sometimes lost their life. Moreover, refugees did not have any medical check-ups while entering Yemen and thus, several diseases have spread, mainly HIV, among the refugees. Medical sources revealed during the last two years that some refugees were inflicted with the HIV disease. There are about 1200 cases of people infected with the virus. 55,5% of them are among foreigners(mainly the refugees).
Mr. Abdullah Mohammed Al-Saidi, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs and head of the National Committee of Refugees Affairs(NCRA) said Yemen has suffered much from the unorganized flood of refugees from the African Horn. The exacerbation of the problem forced the government to establish NCRA to take care of the refugees . He added that Yemen, as an underdeveloped country, faced the problem of meeting the refugees’ needs as the aid raised by the donor countries for this purpose is very limited. He said NCRA and UNHCR cooperated to provide every possible aid to refugees, adding that they are now working together to get refugees in the Al-Jaheen camp transferred to Kharaz. He also said they will help those who are willing to go back home voluntarily.
In his research paper, DR. Fuwad Al-Salahi focused on the reasons behind seeking asylum for the people in the African Horn countries. He said it has something to do with the traditional social structure of the people in this area and the diversity of their culture, language, and religion which created diversified tribal and political affiliations resulting in conflicts and wars. The low level of education and social services, among most of the population in the countryside help exacerbate the problems. He pointed out that extraordinary measures supported by all groups must be taken to stop the problem of the refugees. The first step, however, should start with finding solutions for conflicts, violence, and creating social and political stability. Then, dialogue between conflicting groups in the respective countries should be conducted.
Dr. Abdulhakim Al-Sharjabi, professor of sociology at Sanaa University, discussed the social problems faced by refugees. He stressed the need to probe into the life of refugees to understand their problems, adding that the lack of respect for refugees on the part of host countries represent the key problem for them. Thus, alleviating the problems of refugees should not only be a humanitarian act. Rather, it should become a task which all governments are obliged to carry out. He said refugees suffer from many social ordeals such as being homeless, jobless, without families, neighbors, education, and worshipping centers to practice their religious rituals and proper health care. Refugees also find it difficult to be assimilated within a new and different culture, language, religion and above all a new social environment.
Presenting statistics about refugees in Yemen, he said that there are 58,214 refugees from Somalia, 1342 from Ethiopia, 2503 from Eritrea, and 132 from Sudan.
Mohammed Abdullah Miftah, sheikh of Somali refugees at Al-Jaheen Camp, analyzed the problems of Somali refugees in the camp. He said that the refugees do not have enough food, proper health care or clothes. He said the single clinic of the camp has got only two cars that are used to carry patients from the camp to Aden once or twice a week and that several diseases hit the camp. The camp has got only two primary schools that are run by Swedish and UAE charitable societies. He also criticized the mismanagement of the camp as people who have been running it are not qualified and lack experience in running refugees camps. The result is their inability to handle the problems of refugees.
One of the main recommendations of the workshop was the establishment of a Yemeni-Somali NGO to look after the refugees.