African Refugees Fleeing Persecution, and Arriving at Yemen’s War


EU/ECHO/J. George


Fleeing terrorism in Somalia, a grandmother sought a new life for her family in Yemen. She paid traffickers to smuggle her and three grandchildren across the Gulf of Aden — a 24-hour journey by boat. One of her granddaughters had been forced to marry a member of Al-Shabaab, an East Africa militant group aligned with Al Qaeda, and was pregnant with her second child.

“Smugglers said they would help me and treat me like their mother,” the grandmother told rescue workers. But once aboard the boat, four Somali crewmen harassed her two granddaughters. “We felt that, as human beings, we had no value at all,” she said. “They were very evil and cruel people.”

After enduring the harrowing boat trip across the Gulf of Aden, she was thrown into the water. An interview transcript with the grandmother, recorded by United Nations High Commission for Refugees workers, does not detail how she and her family made it to a refugee camp in the Yemen’s south. Her story illustrates the plight of hundreds of thousands of refugees, who are smuggled from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, further crippling a host country already devastated by a civil war that has killed 10,000 civilians.

Since 2013, smugglers and human traffickers have lured almost 300,000 Ethiopian and Somali refugees to cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden with promises of security and economic opportunities. More than 400 people have died during the journey since 2013, according to the United Nations. But the inflow of refugees poses a complicated exigency for humanitarian efforts working to stabilize the country — as Yemeni’s flee their own country in the opposite direction toward the Horn of Africa.

“They arrive and see chaos, poverty, and insecurity,” Waleed Alhariri, an advisor on Yemen policy for UN and agencies, said of the refugees from Africa. “It’s almost fleeing from a war zone to an unknown.” A 60-year-old Somali man paid $550 to be smuggled with his wife and two children — about four months rent in Yemen.

“I was misled indeed. I would not have come and uprooted my family if I knew such a bitter circumstances,” he said in an interview with UNHCR workers. “They dropped [me] in deep waters. I was the first to drop so as to save my wife, children, and this elderly uncle. Water was as high as my cheek. The crew was very cruel people.”

Civil war has ravaged Yemen since March 2015, when a Saudi-led coalition conducted airstrikes on the nation’s capital, Sana’a. The attack was in response to a military coup by Houthi rebels aligned with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh against President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Houthi-Saleh’s forces, backed by Iran, have since fought against Hadi’s troops, who have been bolstered by a Saudi-led coalition.

The resulting conflict has placed almost 19 million people, or 70 percent of the population, in need of humanitarian aid. UN estimates suggest more than 3 million people are acutely malnourished.

“Even if they don’t die from crossfire and airstrikes, they are dying from hunger and no access to medication,” Alhariri said.

In addition to Yemeni’s leaving the country, more than two million are displaced within the country, fleeing their homes to avoid the conflict. A further one million have since returned to their homes. Yemen’s role in the region has traditionally been to accept refugees from Horn of Africa nations, including Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, who are fleeing civil war and extreme poverty in their own countries. “Yemen’s generosity is a blessing and a burden,” Shabia Matoo, a UNHCR spokesperson, said from Yemen. She said refugees are persuaded to make the journey by smugglers who dismiss the severity of the conflict.

Matoo has spoken with Ethiopian and Somalian refugees who have shared horror stories of their journeys to one of the three refugee camps in Yemen. “It’s a dangerous journey and a dangerous arrival. They are at the mercy of smugglers, who can extort them for money, sexual abuse and harm,” Matoo said.

In one interview, an Ethiopian woman regretted her decision to travel to Yemen after she was badly beaten. She said had no access to medical treatment after she was assaulted by people looking for money and was forced to let her wounds heal by themselves. Matoo has heard similar stories. The refugees “are coming from rural or remote areas…fleeing poverty or persecution back home and fleeing to Yemen,” Matoo said.

“They want to seek international protection. Others think they can find economic opportunities and some use Yemen as a transit point to Saudi Arabia and Gulf countries.” Last year, more than 117,000 refugees arrived in Yemen from Ethiopia and Somalia. Yemen has received more than 290,000 refugees since 2013, the inflow of refugees increasing as the conflict has intensified.

In the initial stages of the conflict, 170,000 Yemeni’s fled north to Gulf States, including Oman and Saudi Arabia, who was leading a coalition attack on the country, and west to Horn of Africa nations. As many as 90,000 Yemenis are reported to have fled the country last year. The UN made a plea for $2.1 billion in donations this month to avert a famine expected to affect 12 million people. So far two percent has been made available, according to Alhariri.

“The Yemeni government don’t have command and control over their forces, let alone displaced people,” Alhariri said.

Alhariri, who also heads the New York office of Yemen-based Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, said terrorist organizations have benefited from the war, which has created an overall state of insecurity.“For humanitarian relief, you need a cease fire to the conflict. It’s leading to more death,” Alhariri said. “The only ones who benefit is ISIS and Al-Qaeda through the insecurity.”

Recent peace talks facilitated by the UN have been largely unsuccessful, with president Hadi seeking to retake full control of power, while the Houthis say they will disarm if they are given a share of power. These efforts took a blow last month when the building housing the De-escalation and Coordination Committee responsible for the cessation of conflict talks was bombed in Saudi Arabia, near the Yemeni border.

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