Unrest in Yemen has prompted hundreds of Somali refugees to once again risk a deadly sea crossing, this time to return to their home country, say officials and migrants.
This year alone some 89 people drowned or went missing while crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen. The worst single incident took place in late February when some 57 refugees died after their boat capsized, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Since 2008, well over 1,000 people have failed to survive the crossing.
There are about 181,500 Somali refugees living in Yemen, either in camps or urban centres. The influx began following the 1991 ouster of Somali President Mohamed Siad Barre, which prompted his country’s descent into a devastating civil conflict that rages to this day.
"We have so far registered 255 Somali returnees from Yemen," said Mohamud Jama Muse, director of the Migration Response Centre (MRC) in Bosasso, capital of Somalia’s semi-autonomous region of Puntland, adding that several hundred more were expected soon.
MRC was created in April 2009 to register and provide counselling and assist migrants heading to Yemen. "Now we have to deal with those coming back," said Muse, explaining that those returning had been living in both north and south Yemen.
"I think this is the beginning of the exodus back," he added, explaining that providing shelter for the returnees was one of the main challenges.
"They are joining thousands of displaced already here and they don’t have a place to stay or even a plastic sheet.” He said most came with just "the clothes on their back".
Alwia Omar, who works in Yemen with Intersos, an Italian humanitarian NGO, said she was aware that some refugees were returning to Somalia. “Most Somalis who are coming to Yemen want to eventually go Saudi Arabia, but that is now almost impossible. Secondly, there are no jobs to be had in Yemen and thirdly in the last few months the situation in the country has been uncertain and there is an element of fear,” she told IRIN.
Yemen has been rocked by nationwide anti-government protests since early February. At least 80 people have reportedly been killed.
"I went to Yemen in June 2007 seeking safety and security and a chance to make a living in peace but I have now ended up returning to where I took the boat, with my hopes dashed," Zahra Ahmed told IRIN in Bosasso, three days after she returned to Somalia from the Yemeni town of Mukulla, 260km east of Aden. Zahra said she had paid the equivalent of US$30 for the boat trip. The fare to Yemen from Somalia can reach $200.
"As soon as the troubles started, the security forces began harassing us or arresting us," Ahmed said. "I was picked up from the street coming from work and arrested. No-one knew where I was and I could not call anyone. We came here to run away from a war and now we are caught up in someone else's war."
|I think we [Somalis] are the most unlucky people in the world; it seems wherever we go violence follows us|
Ahmed added that Somalis in Yemen also began to face harassment from locals after opposition media reported – apparently with little foundation in truth – that the government had begun recruiting the refugees to help put down the growing anti-regime protests. This, said Ahmed, played a part in some Somalis’ decision to return home.
“We are concerned about this situation and are still following up as this has serious implications for the protection of refugees in the short and long term,” UNHCR spokeswoman Hala al-Horany told IRIN in early March.
"We had nowhere to run to, so we decided to come back. Here [in Bosasso] I have nothing but at least no one is arresting me or harassing me because I am a Somali,” said Ahmed.
Ahmed’s fellow passenger Abdulakdir Abdirahman arrived in Yemen in January 2009. "At the time, my aim was to get into Saudi Arabia but I could not cross."
Abdirahman said life in Yemen was becoming "progressively more dangerous" for everyone, but more so for Somalis.
"I think we [Somalis] are the most unlucky people in the world; it seems wherever we go violence follows us," he said.
He said he would have to decide whether to leave Bosasso for his home town of Mogadishu, the Somali capital, or stay. "I don’t know what I will do; Mogadishu is even more dangerous than when I left.
"I know of a lot of people, who if they get a chance, will return," he added.
* This is an updated version of a story first published on 24 March 2011