Published on Arab Voices

Yemenis: From Hosts to Refugees

Menstrual Hygiene EducationIn the past, refugee issues in Yemen were centered on the hundreds of thousands of African refugees fleeing to Yemen. This refugee influx was a burden on an already impoverished country and taxed its fragile economic conditions over two decades.

As the only signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen became a transit country for refugees fleeing the Horn of Africa. It hosted about 300,000 registered refugees, 95% of whom were Somalis. More recently, Syrian refugees arrived in large numbers in Yemen even though it is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

Suddenly, Yemenis found themselves fleeing the country’s political unrest where violence had escalated since 2011, searching desperately for ways to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Since 2011, the political climate has not stabilized; the transitional phase following the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh had devolved and developed into armed conflict in 2014 leading to major displacement of the population.

Poor living conditions and lack of basic services left many Yemenis with little choice but to escape to any safe place. The armed conflict had made airports inaccessible for safe travel. A boat trip lasting over 18 hours become their only option for escape. The risks of fleeing through the water were tremendous, but many Yemenis considered boat trips less dangerous than staying in Yemen.

There is hardly any information from official authorities or international humanitarian agencies on the numbers and living conditions of the refugees. Thus, no information is available on what kind of aid the refugees receive or how their travel would be facilitated if they wanted to move from one country to another. There are references in the media about a large flow of Yemeni refugees to countries like Djibouti and Somalia.

Badria, a Yemeni refugee in Djibouti said, “I live now in a tent with my husband and four children. Life here is not easy. It is even more difficult when it rains. We feel cold. We cannot sleep. We have a miserable life.” Badria is from Khamer, Amran governorate in northern Yemen. “We arrived in Djibouti on a livestock ship. We sat beside the animals for 19 hours” she added.

There has been very little credible press coverage of the plight and struggle of Yemeni refugees. There is only limited activity by some websites run by Yemeni activists, such as “Yemen Speaks”. These sites document the suffering of refugees and their sub-human conditions during and after seeking refuge.

Ironically, hundreds of Yemenis and Somali refugees are now fleeing in a reverse refugee flow. Refugees tell stories of how others attempting to flee were caught in the crossfire between the various fighting factions involved in the ongoing conflict in Yemeni cities.

It is clear that any potential refugee has to risk their lives to flee. Having fled, the suffering they face at refugee camps that lack the simplest requirements  for life are brutal. For example, Yemeni refugees in Djibouti live in the desert far away from urban areas. In the absence of adequate international support, they suffer from oppressive heat, food scarcity, and attacks by hyenas.

If the ongoing violence does not end soon, the number of Yemeni refugees is expected to increase in the coming period. According to UN reports, 100,000 people will be forced to flee Yemen in search of a safe haven.


Sabria Al-Thawr

Lecturer at the University of Sanaa

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