17 September, 2007

Yemen: Transit Destination for Somalis and Iraqis

As treacherous and dangerous as it is, large numbers of Somalis still flee to Yemen. Tens of thousands risk dehydration, asphyxiation, beatings or even being thrown overboard by unscrupulous and brutal traffickers who use rickety vessels - just to make the journey across the sea to Yemen.

BIR ALI, Yemen -- The journey from Somalia ends and begins anew in Bir Ali. Along the Yemeni coast near this ramshackle fishing village, where white sandy beaches wash over a stark volcanic plateau, as many as 100 people a day are arriving across the Gulf of Aden in a sprawling and largely unnoticed exodus from Africa to the Middle East. Tens of thousands have made the trek, forced by war and misery from a failed state to a failing one. Since last year, more than 1,000 of them have died, their decaying corpses often washing ashore and buried in unmarked mass graves near Bir Ali. It is reported that, just in the last two weeks almost 1,000 Somali refugees have arrived in Yemen, out of whom, tens have died. Yemen being so near to Somalia and as Yemen's government easily accepts fleeing Somalis and easily grants refugee status to them, there are now nearly 90,000 registered Somali refugees in Yemen. Most of these refugees use Yemen as a transit route to other places: the Persian Gulf, Europe or America.

Is the journey worth it? Passage on rickety fishing boats costs $50 to $120 for a 180-mile trip that lasts two, three or sometimes four days. By virtually every account, the smugglers are brutal: Unruly refugees are thrown overboard into shark-infested waters; others are shot, sometimes to teach the rest of the passengers a lesson. Some refugees are shoved into the sea a half-mile or more from shore so the boats can make a quick getaway, and residents have seen corpses wash up with their hands and legs bound. U.N. officials cite a variety of ordeals on board, including rape, stabbings and dehydration. But what else can the Somalis do? The enormous risk they take to cross to Yemen (as poor as Yemen is) can easily tell one, of what the risk of remaining in Somalia means.

On the other hand, there are the Iraqis. Of whom, thousands too fled to Yemen. Many of whom too, use Yemen as a transit point for other destinations. It is estimated that there are about 70,000 Iraqis presently living in Yemen. Unlike the Somalis, the vast majority of the Iraqis are highly educated and skilled, and fare much better than the Iraqis in Jordan and Syria. Although the Yemeni authorities are concerned about the number of Iraqi refugees in the country, they have shown a degree of understanding of their plight, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Since the first arrivals of Iraqi refugees in the country during the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni authorities applied to them the principles of Arab unity. That is, it regarded them as residents with the right to work, education and social benefits on the basis of their being Arabs.

For the Somalis, Yemen still easily allows them in as refugees and thousands will still take the very risky journey, through the sea, to rich the safety of Yemen and risk to face, too - a very difficult and uncertain life and future in Yemen - rather than remain in Somalia. For the Iraqis, it's no longer as easy as it was before to enter and stay in Yemen: this stems largely from a recent government decision requiring all Iraqis entering the country to have a visa - a major shift in policy for Yemen which earlier had allowed all Arab nationals to enter without a visa. For both Somalis and Iraqis: is there a solution in sight? Will Somalia and Iraq settle down and allow its people back home to lead normal lives?