Refugees and IDP: Another Dimension of the Conflict in Yemen

Written by J. Comins

Translation: María Blanco Palencia

Refugees and IDPs in Yemen

Yemen is not only the poorest country in the Arab world and one of the most depressed in the world. It is moreover the scenario of multiple open and simultaneous conflicts: collision of tribal loyalties, armed confrontations in northern provinces, secessionist movements in the south, an intense anti-terrorist struggle which does not know territorial limits, and a blossoming transition process. All this has generated a serious humanitarian crisis among an increasing number of internally displaced people and refugees mostly from different countries of the Horn of Africa.

Refugees and IDPs in Yemen is the title given to the latest cultural initiative of the Spanish Embassy in Sana’a. It is the second exhibit by Spanish photographer Samuel Aranda in the Yemeni capital and has been sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Netherlands Embassy. Once again, the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2011 has portrayed the Yemeni population whose only error was, citing the photographer, “to be born and/or being in the wrong time and place”. IDP (Internally Displaced People) are those who have been obliged to desert inside their own country, normally with other foreign displaced people. In Yemen, they are mainly Ethiopians and Somalis who run away from their homeland to take refuge in another one, even less secure. As stated by a known saying, they jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

According to data provided by the UNHCR delegation in Sana’a –updated on the 31 May 2012–, the number of registered refugees in Yemen has reached 224 540 (although the Yemeni Government states they are many more). The majority of them come from Somalia (214 485) and the rest are distributed between Ethiopia, Eritrea, Iraq and other countries. Around 103 000 refugees arrived in 2011. As for IDP, they are already 486 588 inside Yemen as a consequence of the Saada war in the north –two thirds of the total– and, since the middle of last year, as a consequence of armed confrontations between the Yemeni Army and terrorist groups in the province of Abyan, in the south of the country.

Yemen is the only country of the Arabia Peninsula which has signed the 1951 Geneva Conventions on the Statuts of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, its national legislation grants prima facie the status of refugee to all Somalis who are fleeing their country. However, this extremely generous policy towards refugees, taking into account poverty and the deteriorated economic situation in the country, is shadowed by its discriminatory policies towards citizens from other countries. The treatment difference makes that only some Ethiopians ask for political asylum on their arrival in Yemen. The majority of them, on the contrary, try to avoid any contact with local authorities and to slip through different cities to avoid the criminalization of their temporarily illegal situation.

However, a large number of refugees and asylum searchers opt for becoming more visible and denouncing their precarious situation in the streets of Sana’a. Protests started last Monday in front of the Ministry of Human Rights and some even considered the possibility of self-immolation if the situation did not get better. Tens of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali refugees, which are now living on the street,condemned abuses carried out by Yemeni security forces to get them out of immigration prisons the afternoon before: they used tear gas, rubber balls and assaulted them with metal bars.

On the other hand, “fights and brushes for water among African refugees and local population have become daily scenes”, states Mohammad al Behish, head of the police office in the district of Safia in Sana’a. This situation will tend to worsen if, as predicted by experts, the capital runs out of water in 2017 as a consequence of the rapid population increase and the demanding qat production which consumes 40% of the water used for irrigation.

The most severe problem for internally displaced people from Abiyan is, aswell as access to infrastructures and basic supplies –the lack of water and supply cuts–, returning to their homes in safe conditions. We must not forget that, during the last weeks, the existence of mines has resulted in the death of tens of people. Moreover, malnutrition problems, overcrowding of camps, and the inexistence of treatment of sewage, make IDP vulnerable victims subject to illnesses such as cholera.

Approximately 17.5% of the Yemeni population lives below the poverty line, with less than 1.25 Dollars per day, according to theUnited Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Furthermore, the latest survey carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP) together with the Central Statistical Office in Yemen and UNICEF, highlights that five million people living in the country are not able to produce or buy the food they need. Despite this, nothing is being done to fight rampant corruption which affects the aid chain since some time ago. As denounced by Fatima Motaher, member of the Journalists’ Trade Union in Yemen, this corruption is not only present in the Yemeni Government but it has moreover translated into civil society and international organizationsthat work in the country.

Taking into account the described situation, the Executive presided by Hadi faced a great challenge: to with “the hearts and minds” of Yemenis –especially of the vulnerable internally displaced–, without forgetting refugees, through the progressive implantation of basic social services. A battle that some tribal leaders and groups of radical extremists are taking advantage of until now.

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J. Comins

J. Comins is a political scientist specialising in Diplomacy, International Relations and Security. In recent years, he has served with the United Nations peacekeeping missions in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and Mali (MINUSMA), and also worked as safety advisor for the International NGO Safety Organisation (INSO) in Afghanistan. He occasionally contributes analysis to the Spanish Institute for Strategic Studies (Ministry of Defence) and the International Security Studies Group (GESI) at the Department of Political Science of the University of Granada.

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