As the world celebrated International Refugee Day this week, refugees in Yemen have continued to receive only marginal media attention. While their plight is overshadowed mostly by the war against Al-Qaeda, hundreds of thousands continue to travel the migration routes from the Horn of Africa through to Yemen and the other Gulf States. In 2011 alone, the number of refugee-migrants arriving in southern Yemen increased dramatically, doubling the previous year’s count.
Landing on the Gulf of Aden’s Yemeni shores, many of these refugees have fled from famine, violent conflict, political persecution and widespread poverty in their home countries. Sadly, their struggles continue in Yemen, which is currently in the grips of a local humanitarian crisis and a plethora of political and violent conflicts.
Mostly from Somali and Ethiopia, these refugees not only strain the state’s limited resources, but also add another layer to Yemen’s complex and volatile internal conflict, in which government forces are battling Islamist militants, secessionist groups are trying to make their claims heard, and a devastating economic situation has brought the country to its knees.
Ever since Al-Qaeda linked militants took control of cities in the southern Yemeni province of Abyan last spring, about 200,000 people have fled the conflict areas and are now cramped in shelters in the port city of Aden. In addition, roughly 300,000 people remain
displaced in Yemen’s northern territories bordering Saudi Arabia, where the Houthi-conflict has been raging on and off since 2004. To make matters worse, Yemen is facing an alarming humanitarian crisis, leaving approximately half of the population affected by food insecurity. According to the UN, 250,000 children are currently facing imminent death due to malnutrition.
With a record numbers of refugees arriving from the Horn of Africa, often suffering from dehydration and shock, the Yemeni government, shaken by over a year of anti-regime protests, is unable to handle the crisis without foreign help. State institutions are weak and many government services have been suspended in the course of the last year.
With the symptoms of state failure on the rise, unsettling accounts of human trafficking have surfaced in the last couple of months. In mid-January, three Ethiopian refugees were shot while trying to escape from smugglers, and in March, 70 refugees from East Africa were held captive in a town close to the Saudi Arabian border. These are just a few examples of possible incidents of extortion and torture in which organized groups of human traffickers seem to be engaged.
The influx of refugees raises security concerns for the Yemeni Government. After the Somali militant Islamist group, Al-Shabaab, officially announced its merger with Al-Qaeda in mid-February, fears are mounting that Somali fighters might attempt to join ranks with Al-Qaeda linked militants in Abyan. As a consequence, refugees arriving from Somalia are under heavy state scrutiny, and have largely been confined to refugee camps, where living conditions are harsh.
African refugees arriving in Yemen find themselves in a dilemma. While the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has conducted programs to help these refugees return to their home countries, the majority has rejected the offer. Instead, many choose to remain in Yemen, despite the substantial risks they face.
Without international help, Yemen will be unable to cope with its mounting refugee problem. Yesterday, the United States announced it would send an additional $ 52 million in aid to areas hit by the war on Al-Qaeda. However, more aid needs to be provided for direct humanitarian assistance. As the United States considers sending the Yemeni government military aircraft to help fight Al-Qaeda, it is not clear whether policy makers in the West have heard this message clear enough.