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Going Global with Governance: The Case of Yemen’s Refugee Problems

August 27, 2009

As the number of refugees continues to rise due to war and conflict in the region, there is one place where this problem has so far gone unnoticed. As the impoverished country of Yemen fights to remain afloat, its refugee crisis threatens to boil over and sweep the entire region into a political impasse.

The poorest country in the Middle East is facing an ongoing war in the North, a secessionist movement in the South, piracy attacks on its coast, and increasing al-Qaeda attacks throughout the country. It is therefore not surprising that the influx of thousands of refugees into its borders, fleeing the worst humanitarian crises in the world, garners little to no attention. Nonetheless, night after night, Yemen’s lawless, remote southern beaches provide the backdrop for a slow-burning humanitarian crisis that has jeopardized the economy and stability of the country, and has the potential to destabilise the region as a whole. Without effective local and global governance structures to tackle the problem, both on the ground and at its roots, it is a question of when, not if, a spiral into chaos will occur.

“No Choice”: African Refugees Flee to Yemen’s Southern Beaches

Every year, thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden into Yemen, to escape violence, drought and poverty. Yemen lies along a historical migratory route and has been experiencing an unremitting flow of new arrivals for over 17 years; but recently, as conditions have worsened in the Horn of Africa, the numbers fleeing have drastically increased. In 2007, almost 30,000 took the dangerous voyage. This year, Yemen has witnessed almost triple that amount.
Refugees have fled the Horn of Africa for a variety of reasons: Somalia has suffered from a collapsed state and an ongoing civil war for almost 20 years, and the past two years has seen some of the worst fighting in the country’s bloody history. In Ethiopia and much of the Horn of Africa, climate change and poverty are driving forces for people to make the perilous journey to Yemen.

Lacking safe and legal ways to leave their countries, Somalis and Ethiopians pay smugglers to take them to Yemen. Upon arrival, refugees are given a stark choice: either be taken to the Kharaz refugee camp in the middle of the desert, or make it on their own in one of Yemen’s impoverished cities. Most opt for the latter option, living in urban slums, with roughly 7,500 choosing to stay at the Kharaz camp in southern Yemen. The influx of refugees seeking a better life in Yemen exacerbates the country’s existing economic and political problems: It is the poorest of the 22 Arab nations, struggling with 40% unemployment, 27% inflation and 46% malnutrition rates.

Local Response and the Failure of  Governance

Since 1991, Yemen has offered automatic refugee status to Somalis. At this rate, however, Yemen cannot sustain the current refugee situation. The UN estimates that there are 84,000 Somali refugees in Yemen, whereas the Yemeni government claims the number is closer to 300,000. At the moment, neither the Yemeni government nor the international organizations responsible for refugee protection and resettlement have the capacity or governance structures in place to deal with these flows.

As part of a US$19 million operation, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) operates shelters and reception centers for the refugees in Yemen and has increased its efforts to discourage people from making the illegal crossing into Yemen. It has also sponsored training programs for local coast guard personnel and other officials, and has been trying to design policies, interventions and governance frameworks where assistance and protection are provided to refugees in Yemen’s urban settings. However, the needs remain largely unaddressed with major gaps in water, sanitation, health, education and infrastructure.

Despite this, the UN is nowhere to be seen on the ground, as it hastily runs its operations through a local implementing partner, with little to no regulation or accountability mechanisms. The UN says that the reason it does not have staff on the ground is that southern Yemen is a lawless tribal region, too dangerous for UN staff to operate openly.

At the same time, the lack of governance structures to tackle the refugee problem in Yemen contributes to haphazard attempts by various international, local and government agencies working to dampen the potential unrest created by this population flow. Migration to Yemen has been ongoing for over 17 years, and the slow and inadequate international response is difficult to understand.

The UNHCR has not been able to register all the refugees residing in Yemen. During the agency’s registration exercise, which ended in January 2007, only 48,000 Somalis came forward, most of whom had been in Yemen since at least 2004. Other refugee populations are equally difficult to identify and reach. Ethiopians are considered ‘economic migrants’ by the Yemeni authorities, leaving them at risk for detention and deportation. As a result, most evade the authorities once they reach Yemen.

On the government’s side, Yemen does not yet have a national body responsible for managing refugee affairs. Instead, various national and international bodies apply various pieces of legislation to refugees in an inconsistent and ad hoc manner, leaving them, and their host country, at serious risk. The lack of a single governance body represents a hindrance to addressing protection and resettlement.

Re-Thinking the Refugee Paradox: A Global Perspective

The issue is not simply one to be tackled at the national level, and in fact, the lack of a global approach to tackling ongoing refugee flows has contributed to a worsening of the situation in various contexts, including Yemen.

Refugee protection should be seen as a global public good, and the problem is one of regional – even global – security. The plight of refugees in Yemen has been overshadowed by the dozens of pirate attacks off Somalia’s coast that have grabbed international headlines in recent months. Piracy has implications for corporate and big business interests, but heavy and ongoing refugee flows into a fragile state will have spill over effects into the region as a whole: An unstable Yemen will lead to an unstable Arabian Gulf, which may have disastrous effects on the region’s security and oil supplies.

At the international level, governance structures that wish to deal with refugee issues would need to effectively look at the refugee problem through various lenses. Refugee problems must be understood to be structurally interconnected to other global issues, including migration, security, development, peace-building and human rights, and regulated by effective and well-enforced global governance systems. Unfortunately, what are currently in place are a number of ad hoc procedures that are dealt with on an issue-by-issue basis.

The idea of a system of global governance should not be understood as a global government, but rather as a framework of principles, rules and laws to tackle global problems, upheld by a diverse set of institutions. This would allow problems such as the influx of African refugees into Yemen to be tackled from a broader perspective than simply humanitarian and development work at the point of arrival. Such a system would need regional and international support to tackle the issue from its various sources in the Horn of Africa, supplemented by local governance mechanisms at the point of arrival in Yemen.

Until the political will is mustered by the international community, the anarchic waters of the Gulf of Aden will continue to be host to a potentially destabilizing crisis with global implications.

Group of Six Ethiopians 03.10.07
“We left Bossaso on a boat with a lot of people, about 130. The Ethiopians were separated from the Somali. The Somali were treated better and were on the upper deck. We Ethiopians were at the bottom. People urinated and vomited on us. The smugglers beat us with sticks and belts. When we arrived close to the shore they ordered us to jump out. Some could not swim and 4 people died.”

Somali Woman, 37, 19.01.08
“We thought we would arrive in Yemen quickly [as they had come on a smaller, faster boat] but then our boat had a problem and we thought we would die in the middle of the sea. Six children died because we ran out of food and water. Then they threw them from the boat. The boat took 5 days for the crossing. There was also a woman who turned crazy and started to bite us, saying ‘I’m hungry’.”

An older woman from Mogadishu, who was travelling with her son, recalling the death of her 7-year-old grandson. 10.12.07
“When the boat was still near Bossaso it hit a rock. The smugglers were afraid that the boat would sink and started throwing people overboard. They took my grandson and threw him in the water and also some others. I wanted to grab him to get him back into the boat, but the smugglers prevented them from getting into the boat and pushed them down into the water. At least three people died that way.”

Somali Woman, 40, 11.04.08
“As the boat was coming towards the shore, my husband was getting the children ready. He wanted to give them biscuits, but the smugglers threw the biscuits in the sea. Then suddenly the smugglers threw him into the sea by grabbing his legs. He resisted, holding on to the boat, but they hit him with knives. Then the smugglers threw my two daughters into the sea. I held onto my youngest son. The children were crying. But thank God there was a young man who could swim very well who helped my children to reach the shore. We slept on the shore. In the morning, I saw the dead body of my husband.”

Ethiopian Man, 20, 10.03.08

“This is the third time I came. The first time, I tried to go to Saudi Arabia, but they arrested me and I was deported to Ethiopia. The second time, when I arrived in Yemen, the coast guards arrested me and sent me to Sana’a where I was in the jail for 20 days, after that I was deported to Ethiopia.”

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