Yemen’s government . . . or the UNHCR?Who is responsible? [Archives:2004/714/Community]

February 23 2004

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

As the public protest of about 200 Ethiopians may hit its third week, questions remain who is ultimately responsible: Yemen's government, or the United Nations?
Sitting in front of the UN High Commission on Refugees building for 12 days, the protesters, living in Yemen for 13 years, are seeking a permanent home.
Their first preference is to be granted citizenship in Yemen and integrated fully into Yemeni society. If this is not a feasible option, they would like to be resettled.
According to refugees involved in the sit-in, it is the responsibility of the UNHCR to speed up the process of being given nationality in Yemen or elsewhere.
“UNHCR is mandated to protect refugees and find a solution for their problems,” said refugee, Yassin Mohamed Lejisso. “The responsibility is on the shoulders of UNHCR.”
But Saad Al-Attar, Representative of the UNHCR in Yemen, told The Yemen Times that according to the Convention and Protocol established in 1951 by the UN, the UNHCR is a facilitator, offering assistance to host countries and refugees, which means the protesters may be aiming at the wrong target.
“UNHCR's responsibility is clearly defined in the Convention,” said Al-Attar. “The responsibility of UNHCR, as the Convention clearly states, is to provide support for the host country and to supervise the host country in carrying out its responsibility. Therefore, the responsibility of providing protection and assistance is with the host country, especially in cases where the host country has signed with the Convention.”
He added that since the Yemeni government signed to follow the rules of the Convention in 1980, Yemen is responsible for the refugees camping outside the UNHCR headquarters.
As for gaining citizenship, UNHCR's job is only to encourage the host country to give refugees nationality and full rights, while the decision lies with the host country.
“While we are working with countries that signed the Convention that they should be obliged to give basic rights,” said Al-Attar, “we also encourage them to give full rights.”
The Ethiopian protesters, who use sleeping bags or bedrolls while sleeping and use a make-shift kitchen for cooking their own food outside the UN building, may find it hard to get citizenship in Yemen or elsewhere, however.
They represent about 550 Ethiopians who were once part of the Ethiopian Navy but defected from their country in 1991 and handed over 14 warships to the Yemeni government when they arrived.
And many countries are cautious giving out citizenship to refugees affiliated with political movements or have an association with the military in their original country.
According to Yemeni Foreign Minister Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, the Yemeni government is doing its best working with the refugees, but it is handling the issue carefully.
“Yemen deals with them as refugees, but given their position, there is some sensitivity between Yemen and Ethiopia,” said Al-Qirbi, who heads the ministry that includes the African branch.
He added that Yemen has been regarded as one of the best countries in the Middle East on how it treats refugees, and the Ethiopian refugees have been given attention to make sure they live comfortably and that they have very few restrictions.
“I can only praise Yemen for having accepted the warships and the refugees because there has always been a delicate relationship with Ethiopia,” said Al-Attar.
“Many countries would never accept these kind of refugees because it could easily affect the relationship with a neighboring country. And considering the dynamics of security in this region and the dynamics of the relationship between Yemen and Eithiopia, the Yemeni government has not done a bad job dealing with the refugees.”
Al-Attar also emphasized that one of the most important goals the UNHCR tries to achieve is for refugees to be granted refugee status and given basic rights and freedom by a host country.
“For refugee status, what the Convention provides is basic rights and freedom, and that is the first obligation of a host country,” said Al-Attar. “The basic rights include the right to live, the right to practice one's religion, the right to have a social life and so forth.”
He gave credit to the Yemeni government for giving the Ethiopians refugee status and that basic rights and freedom of the refugees have been up to par.
Al-Attar said that if the refugees would like to focus on resettling in another country, UNHCR can offer assistance.
“We will organize meetings for the refugees' representatives and embassies of resettlement countries,” said Al-Attar. “If any embassies or countries have an interest in taking them, we will be happy to facilitate and oblige. But UNHCR cannot put pressure on any country to accept any refugees.”
Even though it is not clear if a solution will be found for the plight of the refugees camping outside the UN building, the Ethiopians have planned to continue the sit-in until demands are met.