News / Africa

No Help for Non-Somali Asylum Seekers in Yemen

At 25-years-old, Mulumabet Addam, an Ethiopian refugee, is a widow, and runs a small music shop in Sana'a
At 25-years-old, Mulumabet Addam, an Ethiopian refugee, is a widow, and runs a small music shop in Sana'a
Heather Murdock

As the Ethiopian elections approach and the region struggles to survive the worst drought since 2000, more and more people flee the Horn of Africa to Yemen every year.  On Yemen's shores, Somalis find safe passage to refugee camps, while non-Somalis flee the beach. Many are arrested and deported without the chance to plea their case to the U.N. refugee agency. 

Here at the Zed Music shop, popular Ethiopian music plays as the shop owner, Mulumabet Addam, watches over her baby daughter sleeping on the floor under the counter.

Mulumabet says as an Ethiopian refugee, her only identification is a letter from the UNHCR.  As far as the Yemeni government is concerned, she is an illegal immigrant.

Mulumabet, like many African refugees, says she is regularly harassed and discriminated against.  Last year, she says, her home was raided and her husband was killed.  Neither the police, nor the UNHCR could help.

It is impossible to tell exactly how many non-Somali refugees from Africa are smuggled across the Gulf of Aden each year, because many hit the beach and start running.  Somalis fleeing war are granted automatic refugee status when they arrive in Yemen, but non-Somali Africans are regularly arrested and deported.

And the number of new arrivals has increased dramatically in the past year, mostly from Ethiopia.

Yemen is only country in the Arabian Peninsula to have signed on to international treaties that obligate the country to allow immigrants a chance to apply for asylum.

UNHCR official Samer Haddadin says that the Yemeni government is correct when it says most of the people coming from Africa to Yemen are looking for jobs, not fleeing persecution.  But he says Yemen still needs to allow everybody the chance to plead their case.

"If there is one asylum seeker, it's a good reason for UNHCR to demand screening all of the thousands [of people leaving] to find that one asylum seeker, so we can make sure that no single refoulement or return by force where a person's life and freedom is being threatened," said Samer Haddadin.

Many non-Somalis that avoid deportation make it to the UNHCR and are recognized as refugees by the international organization, but not by the Yemeni government.  At the moment, almost 5,000 non-Somali Africans are registered with the UNHCR.  

Adventist Development and Relief Agency project manager Soo-Rae Hong says without government identification, non-Somali refugees have trouble renting homes, getting jobs and traveling.

"They are often imprisoned, and you have no right to fight for it because they have no identification," said Soo-Rae Hong. "They are not legally supposed to be in this country."

And since al-Shabab, an extremist militant group in Somalia, has announced its intention to reinforce al-Qaida in Yemen, Africans all over the country have reported a wave of violence and police harassment.  According to the UNHCR's Haddadin, between the violence, the dangerous trip across the Gulf of Aden, and Yemen's lack of support system, the country is not a safe place for non-Somali African refugees.   

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