Poor country. Great effort?: the case of Somali refugees in Yemen

Every year many Somali asylum seekers cross the Gulf of Aden in small boats, desperate for a better life. Currently 82,000 refugees are registered with the UNHCR, but the organization estimates there are some 150,000 Somalis living in Yemen in total. Although Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, it has an open door policy towards Somali immigrants. Every Somali is granted a refugee status prima facie. Besides, Yemen is the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that signed the 1951 Geneva Convention as well as the 1967 Protocol. A very great effort so it seems, and in theory it is. Unfortunately reality looks rather different.

The prima facie acceptance
The open door policy of the prima facie acceptance is generous. Compared to the wealth of for instance European nations, Yemen has far less resources but still accepts large groups of migrants. However, the fact that Yemen gives every Somali who applies for asylum a refugee status is a serious problem. Though many Somalis have fled the civil war in their country, some are economic migrants. These economic migrants are now granted a refugee status, and as a result they demand from limited UNHCR resources. Therefore the real refugees, for whom the resources are meant get less. Less than what they need. ʻSea of tearsʼ shows us the horrible situations people live in. However, as this year the budget was more than doubled, this situation might improve.

The absence of national law
A second problem is de absence of national law. As Yemen has no national refugee legislation, refugees are treated in the exact same way as other non-nationals. They are subject to the same laws. Officially, refugees are permitted to work. But the Ministry of Labour has required non-nationals to present a passport when applying for work permit. Most refugees of course cannot show one, as they often loose it during the crossing, lost it months before or had to hand it over to their smugglers. Besides their passport, refugees need a letter from the UNHCR, but in order to receive the UNHCR letter, a letter from a employer is needed. Non of Hughesʼ respondents had either themselves received a work permit nor knew anyone who did.

Education and health care
The Geneva Convention requires that refugees should have the same acces to elementary education and health care as nationals. Yemen provides neither of these for free. As a result only refugees who earn enough money to afford the costs have acces to public healthcare. As discussed before, most refugees do not have jobs, as it seems impossible for them to receive a work permit. NGOs provide some health services, but this is not enough to meet the needs of all refugees.

Deportation of HIV sufferers
Most striking, I think, is the deportation of HIV sufferers. Hughes states: “The Yemeni Government reserves the right to deport foreigners who have contracted the HIV virus.”1 Hospitals refuse to treat patients who suffer from HIV. The Yemeni government has even implemented a law which requires these hospitals to report HIV suffers to the authorities. The Yemeni government might have adopted this policy, in order to protect its people from HIV. However, as refugees are now afraid of being deported, they will not take the risk of going to a hospital. This means there is no way of monitoring HIV. Protecting Yemeni citizens might become more difficult this way, not less.

The UNHCR advocates that the international community should help Yemen and adopt some of its refugees. If not, Yemen will need to become more restrictive, because it clearly cannot deal properly with the current situation. I do not think this will happen anyday soon. Probably, the international community is not unsatisfied with the situation. Every refugee who flees to Yemen, does not flee to another country.

- Jaffer, F.H., S. Guy & J. Niewczasinski, 2004. ʻReproductive health care for Somali refugees in Yemenʼ in Forced migration review issue 19 Jan. 33 - 34
- Hughes, N.H.B. ʻReport on the situation of refugees in Yemen: findings of a one-month exploratory studyʼ August/September 2002
- Hughes, N.H.B. 2003. ʻYemen and refugees: progressive attitudes - policy voidʼ in Forced migration review issue 16 Jan. 36 - 38
- www.unhcr.org (30/10/2009)
- ʻSea of tearsʼ, a Channel 4 documentary
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