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Refugees in Yemen: First the Africans, Now the Syrians

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Yemen faces multiple threats on many fronts; whether it is al-Qaeda's lingering presence, the Southern separatist movement, Houthi Shiite Rebels or the underreported Food Crisis. Yemen has no shortage of crises. Indeed, every day the fragile 'Unity' Government must fight for its survival, as evidenced by the recent assassination attempt on the life of the Prime Minister. While the often touted, National Dialogue is likely to overstep its mandate and delay its session by at least a two months according to recent reports. However in the midst of all the disagreement, Yemenis across the spectrum can agree on is Yemen does not need another crisis. Yet is happens, there may be a crisis which is creeping under the radar, that of refugees.

Even though Yemen is unable to feed its own population, it currently hosts at least 250,000 refugees from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Iraq according to the conservative figures of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The vast majority of these refugees originated from Somalia with at least 230, 00 being Somali nationals. This fact is in itself is not a revelation, when the Somali civil war first began; Yemen unilaterally opened its borders to the Somalia people and continues to do so till today. However what is revealing about the latest figures is that there is a clear trend of refugees migrating to Yemen, particularly from the Horn of Africa. The majority of these refugees see Yemen as a gateway to employment in the Gulf. For instance, the UNHCR noted that in more 103,000 refugees and migrants arrived from the Horn of Africa in 2011 and another 80,000 needy and desperate people entered Yemen by the middle of 2012.

However notably these figures do not take into consideration Yemen's own 100, 000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the northern city of Saada and the southern city of Abyan who due to al-Qaeda fighting were forced to leave their homes and relocate. Cumulatively this 'refugee drain' places strain on the limited sources of the Yemeni government and other NGOs. Nonetheless, much of the focus has been the African refugees in Yemen; little attention has been paid to the growing number of Syrian refugees who forced to flee their country because of the on-going civil war, see Yemen as their last sanctuary. Indeed, while Yemen's richer Gulf neighbours (such as Saudi Arabia) close their borders to Syrian refugees and fund rebels inside Syria, the UNCHR estimates that so far upwards of 3, 000 Syrians are currently in Yemen. Prior to the Egyptian coup in June 2013, Egypt was also a major destination for Syrians wishing to flee; however after the change of government in Egypt, it seems that Yemen is now one of the only visa-free countries (Syrians obtain a three month tourist visa after upon arrival which they can apply for a resident permit for a nominal fee).

The idea of Syrians finding refuge in Yemen is not new, Syrian members of the Muslim Brotherhood who fled Syria in the 1970s found safety in Yemen. However now Syrians, distinct with their white skin and green or blue eyes, can be seen begging for Riyals throughout Yemen's cities. Reuters recently reported that for instance, on a main road in the port city of Aden, they observed a 12-year-old Syrian brother and sister called; Zeina and Saad standing in stifling heat begging for money to pay rent on the room where their family is staying. While another refugee named Mustafa begs on the streets of Sana'a says "It's cheaper here [in Yemen]. People are kind and honorable" in comparison to Lebanon & Jordan. As life is expensive in Jordan, where a large bulk of Syrian refugees are housed in camps, Syrians are finding life difficult and see Yemen as a easy escape. Moreover, it is reported that Jordanian benefactors are offering to pay the airfare for the Syrians to travel to Yemen because "Yemen is a good country for refugees" according to one report.

Indeed, these sentiments are echoed by the UNCHR representative for Yemen, who said has that "Syrians do not need to fear being returned to Syria. Yemen is a very generous host country & they will be granted asylum". However when contacted, the UNCHR admitted that its priority is that of refugees from the Horn of Africa. Even then, its operating budget for 2013 is grossly underfunded ($59.8m) and therefore one can question, how effective its operations really are. Not to mention that the UNCHR has also faced problems with the registration of Syrian refugees, having only registered 144 families so far.

While Yemen receives no financial aid from any foreign country to support the influx of refugees, this makes an uncomfortable position for both Yemen and its refugees. In particular the concern is that as Syrians are the latest and most vulnerable group of refugees, the already over-stretched Yemeni Government is doing nothing to help. The Government may permit Syrians to enter the country but then it largely leaves the Syrians to their own fate and upon arrival Syrians receive limited advice or support (although existing, long-term Syrian refugees in Yemen have established some limited support networks in Sana'a). However with more and more Syrians opting to leave Jordan for Yemen, the numbers of refugees are likely to spike soon. This leaves even more Syrians at peril and subject to the generosity of ordinary Yemenis. Initiatives by Yemeni youths are seeking to provide short-term solutions for Syrian refugees, proving them with essential medicine, food and clothing. Nonetheless, these measures fall short of anything meaningful and do little to dent the problem. The moral imperative is clear, a real solution is required, concerned parties must not continue to ignore Syrian refugees in Yemen and poor Syrians must not be overshadowed by refugees from the Horn of Africa and Yemen's own IDPs. Otherwise the influx of Syrian refugees may prove to be the catalyst, which turns Yemen's refugee 'problem' into a crisis.
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