[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006, 21:13 GMT 22:13 UK
Somali refugees languish in Yemen
By Ginny Hill
BBC News, Kharaz refugee camp, Yemen

Growing numbers of people are escaping the protracted civil conflict in Somalia by making the hazardous journey across the Gulf of Aden to the Arabian peninsula.

Refugees receiving UNHCR rations
Refugees survive on handouts from humanitarian agencies

Ever since the collapse of their government in 1991, Somali men, women and children have been arriving at the port of Bossaso to buy passage in small open fishing boats to Yemen, where they are given automatic political asylum.

An average of 30 boats, carrying more than 1,000 people, set sail every month in 2005. But because of a new round of factional fighting this year, even more people have been setting out, despite the heavy risks involved in making the crossing.

The majority land safely on the beach at Bir Ali in Yemen, but hundreds of survivors report being forced overboard in deep water far from shore by unscrupulous people traffickers.

Gulf of Aden map
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, has buried 300 bodies recovered on the beaches around Bir Ali, but true number of fatalities is certainly much higher.

Those who reach Yemen's shores are provided with emergency medical care, registered by the UN, and given the option of free transit to Kharaz refugee camp, about 150km (100 miles) west of Yemen's commercial capital, Aden.

'Better future'

Outsiders can only visit the Kharaz camp - home to 9,000 Somalis and a small number of Ethiopians in a disused military barracks - with a military escort.

This is a recent precaution designed to prevent trouble with the local tribe, who believe that refugees in the camp have access to better facilities and services than Yemeni nationals.

Kharaz refugee camp
Thousands of Somalis live in tents at the Kharaz camp
Anab Ibrahim Mohammed, 30, arrived at Kharaz seven months ago. Sitting on a thin mattress on the bare earth floor of the reception tent in the new arrivals zone, she holds her subdued three-year-old daughter in her lap, as she explains why she left home in Mogadishu.

"My husband was killed while I was pregnant with this child and my family life was destroyed. As soon as I was strong enough and had saved enough money, I went to Bossaso. I paid $70 to travel here."

Anab and her three children spent four days and nights at sea.

"Our boat was tightly packed with passengers, and our hands were tied behind our backs. The people-smugglers beat us with sticks to keep us quiet and stop us from moving," she says. "I came to Yemen hoping for a better future but the life here is difficult."

Anab and her children hope to move from their temporary canvas shelter to a permanent home in the next few weeks.

Limited resources

The UNHCR has just completed a new residential block, built with European Union money, that will house around 75 families like Anab's.

But there is no money allocated to construct additional shelters for the thousands of refugees that are predicted to arrive when better weather will allow the crossing season to resume in September.

Somali children attend school in Kharaz refugee camp
The UN is working to improve conditions for refugees
Residents at Kharaz - like all Somali refugees in Yemen - are entitled to work, but with no money to travel, many stay in the camp enduring the dry desert wind and the monotony and dependency of institutional life.

The majority of Yemen's refugees choose to fend for themselves, however, making their way to the capital, Sanaa, and other urban areas, like Basateen shanty town in Aden.

"Skilled refugees do find work here," says the UNHCR's Adel Jasmin, "but they're usually paid less than Yemeni nationals. Unskilled refugees are employed as manual labour or domestic help."

But Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world with an unemployment rate of 35%, and Yemenis and Somalis alike are competing for limited opportunities.

Registration drive

"The Yemeni economy simply can't absorb many more newcomers," says one Western diplomatic source. "The system's already under strain. If the numbers rise again in the months ahead, it could push the economy to breaking point."

No one knows for sure how many Somalis have made their way to Yemen since the collapse of their government in 1991.

Somali refugee in Kharaz camp in Yemen
Unknown numbers of refugees have passed through Yemen
The UNHCR estimates there are 82,000 refugees in the country now, and when the current national registration process is complete, there will at least be a benchmark figure for everyone to work from.

Unknown numbers, however, have passed through Yemen to neighbouring countries and what is needed now, says Yemen's Foreign Minister Abu Bakr al-Qurbi, is for the much richer Arab Gulf states and the rest of the international community to help Yemen by providing better living conditions for the refugees and to assist it in patrolling its coastline.

"We are trying to work with the Somali interim government to help them ensure effective controls over various ports along the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea, so that they can control the flow of refugees from their end," Mr Qurbi says.

However, once the refugees are at sea, he says that there is very little that Yemen can actually do, except hope that US and European ships patrolling the area will be able to provide assistance when accidents happen.

"Yemen, with its limited resources, cannot achieve very much on its own," he adds.

US captures 13 Somali 'pirates'
19 Mar 06 |  Africa

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific