Sanaa, Asharq Al-Awsat – After the horrors faced by Somali refugees in their attempts to reach the Yemeni coast, fleeing the torment of war and famine in their fallen country, living conditions for these refugees in Yemen have proven to be miserable.
Diplomatic Somali sources in Yemen stated that over 45,000 Somalis managed to reach Yemen in 2008 and that around 1800 people drowned before they reached the Yemeni coasts. Around the same number of people have been declared missing.
While Yemen represents a safe haven for Somalis, well-informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that human trafficking to Yemen has increased significantly in recent years parallel to the increase of acts of piracy on the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden in that there is a link between traffickers and pirates.
In Yemen, a number of Somalis live in refugee camps, some of which come under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) most notably the Kharaz refugee camp in Lahj. There is also the Mifaa refugee camp in Shabwa, Jahin refugee camp in Abeen, as well as Basateen Camp in Aden where there is a mix of official and non-official refugees.
A large number of Somalis live outside of camps which some people argue is slightly better than living within the camps. There is a strong Somali presence in areas such as the Safiya district in Sanaa and the Basateen district in Aden, South Yemen.
The Somalis who embark upon leaving their country to flee wars and famine face many horrors in their journey to reach the Yemeni coast and many of them drown at sea as they are thrown into the waters by human traffickers.
Hussein Hajji Ahmed, who serves as the Somali consul in Aden spoke to Asharq Al-Awsat about the treatment of Somali migrants at the hands of Somali human traffickers. “They are treated so badly. They are squeezed into small areas on boats, they cannot move and it’s hard for them to breathe. Some of them suffocate to death and others are thrown into the sea by traffickers in order to make the boat lighter. Anyone who tries to move from his place so that he can breathe properly is beaten and anyone who doesn’t follow orders is shot and thrown into the sea.”
Digha Ali, 20, is a refugee who fled Somalia for Yemen. She shared her story with Asharq Al-Awsat. “I came close to dying twice as I crossed the sea with 152 others on a boat that took us from the Somali coast to Yemen and was controlled by seven armed human traffickers. The waves were so strong that all the passengers began to get scared, some of us stood up out of fear as we were vulnerable to drowning because the boat was overloaded. With the waves getting stronger, the traffickers began to throw passengers overboard. Only 25 of us remained onboard,” said Digha, emotionally.
Digha continued, “I died every time they threw somebody overboard and I waited for my turn to come. We were about three kilometers away from the Yemeni coast when they decided to throw us all overboard. My friend and I stayed in the water for six days and nights. We reached the coastline and the Yemeni authorities took us in and took us to Kharaz refugee camp where I joined a family from my tribe.”
Asharq Al-Awsat visited the Somali refugee camp in Basateen, which does not come under the UNHCR in Aden. Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to “Rita”, 19, who spent 25 days in the sea clinging to a plank of wood. “The boat that was taking 91 passengers to Yemen sank. I held on to a large piece of wood from the boat that had been destroyed and I stayed in the water for 25 days until I reached the Yemeni coast. When I got to Bir Ali in Shabwa, I was taken to a hospital. My feet were swollen and I had cuts and my skin was disintegrating because of how long I spent in the water,” said Rita.
Sheikh Ibrahim, the Sheikh of the Hawiya tribe, told Asharq Al-Awsat, “There are some migrants who reach Yemen having seen all those who were with them lose their lives.”
Somali migrants in Yemen endure real suffering that speaks for itself. In the refugee camp, one hears nothing but painful stories. There is illness and suffering, unemployed youths, men who send their wives to look for work and huts that provide little protection from the heat or the rain.
While the Yemeni authorities state that there around 750, 000 migrants in Yemen, the Somali consul Hussein Hajji Ahmed told Asharq Al-Awsat that “this is actually the number of Somalis who reached Yemen from the beginning of the crisis and war in Somalia in the early 1990s.” Hajji believes that the real number stands at 200,000 Somalis in Yemen today because according to him, a lot of Somalis have either returned to Somalia or left Yemen for other countries such as the Gulf states. This is because a lot of Somali migrants consider Yemen as a “stop-off” from where they can head to other countries. However, some people believe that the figure quoted by the Somali diplomat is inaccurate especially that Somalis are spread across many different parts of Yemen and many of them are not registered with the UNHCR.
In an area of no more than 1000 square meters in Basateen, Aden, live approximately 20,000 Somali migrants, 15,000 of whom are registered with the UNHCR in Aden where they are given refugee identity cards by Yemen and are provided with somewhere to live within the refugee camps whilst over 5000 live outside of the camp on the streets. One Yemeni farmer offered land to Somali migrants to sleep on and a water well from which they could drink and use water to wash their clothes. Migrants, who are able to work, struggle to find employment and many end up washing cars for money. A small number work as builders.
Mohamed al Dilli, head of refugee affairs [in Basateen], revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that between 800 and 1000 Somali refugees reach the Yemeni coasts on a daily basis, some of whom are transferred to the refugee camps while others end up in the major cities. “The women are confined to working as housemaids, while some are forced to beg. There is also a small minority of men who work as fishermen on the Shaqra coast of the Abyan province, living away from their families for months at a time,” he explained.
Al Dilli emphasized that the Somali refugees in Aden suffer from difficult and dangerous health conditions. He said, “There is a hospital but it has no medicine or drugs and does not provide any services to patients except when its director is present. Even if there are patients suffering from serious life-threatening illnesses all they do is transfer them to another hospital. So sometimes we are forced to go to other hospitals, and we don’t have enough money to buy medicine, and so our patients’ health deteriorates and they die in front of our own eyes because the UNHCR is not present and does not give us our basic rights, and this is something that we see day and night.”
Although the situation of Somalis in Yemen is extremely difficult both inside and outside of the refugee camps, they continue to follow the political situation in their native country. Many Somalis agree that the golden age of government in Somalia was between the 1970s and 1990 under the reign of former President Siad Barre. They believe this in spite of the corruption that existed in this government before its collapse. The Somalis in Yemen believe that what is happening today is much worse than any other stage of Somalia’s history. Despite their praise of the Somali government, they find fault with it for its severity, and confirm that they have family members who were killed by Ethiopian troops in Somalia.
The “Somalis of Yemen” consider the acts of piracy carried out by Somali pirates in the Gulf of Aden as “a legitimate right” and a revolutionary act against foreign invaders who exploit the Somali coastal region, which is estimated at approximately 3000 kilometres long and where foreign countries and companies attempt to plunder Somali fishing resources and export and sell them without having any legitimate right to do so.
The Somalis of Yemen turn their attention to the political situation in Yemen every day even as it deteriorates. Somalis are scattered all over the earth, and they suffer in Yemen as refugees, just as they suffer in other regions all over the world.