The grass is always greener: migrant life in Yemen

[Yemen] Musa and his son live rough on the streets of Sana'a. [Date picture taken: 06/06/2006]
Somali refugee Musa and his son live rough on the streets of Sana'a. (Salma Zulfiqar/IRIN)

Musa clutches his son tightly as he sits on the dusty, chaotic roadside next to a petrol station in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. This is his home: a blanket, a pillow and a small plastic bag containing his belongings. A Somali, he arrived in Sana'a a year and a half ago. This is his second visit to Yemen – on his first, he kept going to Saudi Arabia, but because he had entered illegally, he was deported to Somalia.

In 2004, Musa braved the boat journey to Yemen with his son, having lost his wife and daughter in fighting in Mogadishu, Somalia. They have been living as destitutes on the streets. "There is fighting back home, so I can't go back,” he said. “I have to beg for food every day. I paid US$50 for the journey from Bosasso, and we were pushed off the boat and had to swim to shore. The men who bring us in on their boats have guns, and they force you off. We were lucky enough to make it."

A horrid journey

Every year, thousands of migrants from the Horn of Africa make this dangerous journey. Their incentive? For some, refugee status on arrival in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East. Desperation drives them to leave their homeland, and they make journey knowing they may be subject to abuse.

"There are reports that women are raped on the boat journey, and often men are thrown off the boats by the smugglers, who fear they will be caught by the coast guard," said Adel Jasmin, representative of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Yemen. Migrants have been found with their heads, or other parts of their bodies, missing. The UN is currently working with Somali leaders and the Yemeni government to raise awareness of the risk of travelling on such boats.

UNHCR has a reception centre in Yemen’s southern Shabwa Governorate that registers refugees coming in from vast stretches of coastline. The new arrivals receive an identity card, as well as food and water. Then they can choose to go to a refugee camp in the southern Lahij Governorate, or try their luck in Yemen’s cities. Yemen introduced automatic refugee status after Somalis started fleeing their homeland in droves in the 1990s. There are some 15 entry points for refugees, most of whom see Yemen as a transit point en route to greener pastures. Yemen itself is one of the least developed countries in the world, ranking 148 out of 175 countries on the 2003 UNDP Human Development Index.

According to the World Bank, it has a per capita gross domestic product of $460, with approximately 42 percent of its population living in poverty. Some 88,000 refugees are registered with UNHCR in Yemen; about 85,000 are Somalis and the rest mostly Ethiopians and Eritreans. Approximately 78,000 registered refugees live in urban areas, of which some 17,000 live in Sana’a. These figures only represent those refugees who are registered. The Yemeni government believes the total number, including those unregistered, could be as high as 200,000.

This puts a huge strain on Yemen’s paltry resources. "Most of us want to go to [neighbouring] Saudi Arabia because we can make more money there,” Musa explained.

Racial discrimination and abuse

Photo: Salma Zulfiqar/IRIN
Mona Haji Hussein, a refugee in Sana'a, Yemen’s capital, has no choice but to leave her children, aged four, three and 15 months, locked in her room while she goes out to work

For those who survive the traumatic boat journey to Yemen, the misery continues. Many refugees said they faced discrimination from the local population. Somalis seem to be singled out for abuse, despite the status given to them on arrival. I've been beaten several times here in the street - and my son. People just watch and laugh," Musa said, pointing to scars on his stomach and on his son’s head. "They [Yemenis] make fun out of us and treat us like dogs, just because we are African and black."

 Refugees lucky enough to find work in a country where unemployment is estimated at 40 percent have menial jobs. The men engage in day labour or wash cars – earning around $5 per day. Women take on mainly domestic work for a monthly salary of about $50. "I have three children. My husband went to Saudi Arabia and I never heard from him again. I must provide for them,” said Mona Haji Hussein, a refugee in Sana'a. She shares a flat with six other people and has no choice but to leave her children, aged four, three and 15 months, locked in her room while she goes out to work.

"I tie them to the bed so they don’t fight with each other or fall out of the window or play with the electric sockets in the room. I have no choice but to do this - what else can I do?" she sobbed. "The situation is very bad for refugees, and Somalis are the biggest population,” said Ahmed Arman, executive secretary of a local human rights organisation in Sana’a.

 “They are discriminated against, and so they can only do certain menial jobs, which don’t pay enough and leave them open to abuse.” Recently, he had received reports that several Somali women had been raped. “We have heard of at least three cases in Sana'a, and 12 in the south in Aden. The problem is that many women do not want to press charges or file a case because they are terrified of the consequences." UNHCR's Jasmin said her agency was investigating similar reports. Facilities for refugees in Yemen are very limited.

While a centre has been established in Sana'a by UNHCR and a local nongovernmental organisation offering vocational training and healthcare, it is not enough to help all of the large refugee population. "About 150 refugees visit us every day," said Mahyoub Alomari, the centre’s training manager. “The best way to integrate Somalis is to make them self-sufficient, and this is what we are trying to do here." For its part, UNHCR said it is completing a refugee-registration process to determine needs for the coming year and whether it is, in fact, safe for some refugees to return to parts of Somalia that are not at war. As part of the process in Yemen, identification cards are renewed or issued. These entitle refugees to work, as well as give them some access to education and healthcare.

However, Jasmin said, funds have been slashed because of emergencies elsewhere, preventing them from reaching out further. The United Arab Emirates Red Crescent Society is funding five projects to create jobs for refugees. Plans include a soap factory and an ice plant. The agency said it would also provide clothing and food.

 Migrant life in Yemen Migrant life in Yemen (05:02 min) SZ/CB

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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