Some of the nearly 200,000 Somalis who have sought refuge in Yemen from violence and famine in their own country are now considering going back home due to worsening security in the Arabian Peninsula nation, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“Most new arrivals tell UNHCR (High Commissioner for Refugees) that they were unaware of the situation in Yemen and the conditions they would be facing,” spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told a news briefing in Geneva.
Yemen has been torn by fighting between supporters and opponents of President Ali Abdullah Saleh for most of this year, while Somalia’s two decades of factional warfare have been exacerbated by one of the worst famines in memory, which has already killed tens of thousands of people, put 750,000 more at risk of death in the coming months if there is no adequate response, and affected four million others..
“Many left Somalia hoping they would be able to carry on to other Gulf countries or find work in Yemen itself. However, the deteriorating security situation has curtailed their movement, and work opportunities for refugees in Yemen are rapidly shrinking. For these reasons some of the refugees are now considering returning to Somalia,” Mr. Mahecic said.
UNHCR has a voluntary repatriation programme but only to the relatively stable northern Somali regions of Puntland and Somaliland for refugees originating from there, but most of those in Yemen are from the volatile and conflict-ridden southern and central parts of the Horn of Africa country.
Mr. Mahecic said instability in Yemen is also giving greater opportunity for human traffickers along its Red Sea coast, with persistent reports of abductions of migrants and refugees, mostly for ransom or extortion. While the main targets seem to be Ethiopian migrants looking for opportunities in Gulf countries, Somali nationals have been also abducted.
“The worsening security is making our work more dangerous and complex,” he stressed, noting that insecurity often prevents patrolling humanitarian teams from reaching new arrivals before the smugglers.
Another worrying trend has been the prevalence of abuse and sexual assaults of female refugees and migrants while on the perilous sea passage across the Gulf of Aden. “Together with our partners we are providing medical assistance and counselling to survivors,” Mr. Mahecic added.
Overall, the deteriorating situation in Somalia has forced more than 318,000 people to flee the country so far this year, with the majority going to neighbouring Kenya and Ethiopia. But some 20,000 have taken the risky sea journey to Yemen, with the rate more than doubling in the past two months, bringing the total there to an estimated 196,000.
UN resources have come under additional strain from the internal displacement of over 415,000 Yemenis because of fighting both in the south and north of the country. On top of that, arrivals of other nationals, mainly Ethiopians, have increased significantly, with 8,787 people, virtually all Ethiopian, arriving last month alone. Together with 3,292 Somalis brought the total to 12,079, the highest monthly rate since UNHCR began gathering such statistics in January 2006.
Elsewhere Mr. Mahecic reported a sharp drop in new Somali arrivals at Dadaab refugee complex in eastern Kenya, currently the world’s largest with its sprawling camps hosting over 463,000 people, nearly 200,000 of whom arrived this year. The drop could be due to military operations along Somalia’s border or the onset of heavy rains. No newly-arriving refugees have approached the registration centre in the last week.
Despite the abduction from the complex of two female aid workers from the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) non-governmental organization and the shooting of their driver last week, UNHCR and its partner agencies have been continuing life-saving work for hundreds of thousands of refugees. “Our staff and more than 30 partners remain operational,” Mr. Mahecic stressed.