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Yemen Unrest Makes Somalia Unlikely Safe Haven for Refugees

Children are filling their water containers at the makeshift Camp for Yemeni refugees near the Somali capital Mogadishu. (Courtesy of Muslim Aid)

Four years of a brutal civil war in Yemen has forced more than 4.3 million people to leave their homes. Many of the Yemenis desperately seeking safety are turning to neighboring Somalia.

Ranked as one of the 10 poorest countries in the world by the United Nations (UN), Somalia is considered one of the least politically stable countries, and faces a continued threat from al-Shabab jihadists.

Many Somalis who were living in the country during the 1980s conflict and the 1991 civil war outbreak fled to then-relatively stable Yemen. But the refugee movement has been reversed since late 2014, when a devastating military confrontation in Yemen, between the government and the Houthi rebels, spiraled into the world's most severe humanitarian crisis.

Refugees gather in front of a makeshift tent to collect aid at the Yemeni Refugees Camp near Somali capital Mogadishu. (Courtesy of Muslim Aid)
Refugees gather in front of a makeshift tent to collect aid at the Yemeni Refugees Camp near Somali capital Mogadishu. (Courtesy of Muslim Aid)

One of the Yemeni refugees, Saleh al-Amodi, said he made it to Somalia in 2014 after a risky journey, in which he sailed on a small boat from the Gulf of Aden in southwest Yemen to Bosaso port in northeastern Somalia.

"I was lucky I made it safely to Somalia. A number of people have died in the journey through the sea after their boats sank. Sometimes clashes take place just before the coastal area of Yemen, and a missile might hit one of the fragile boats, sinking its passengers," al-Amodi told VOA.

Weeks before he could leave, Al-Amodi sent his wife and two children to safety in Saudi Arabia. By the time he tried to join them in, Saudi authorities had already closed their borders. The family have been separated since then.

"Anyone who tries to illegally cross to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia or Oman will be shot or arrested. I haven’t seen my family for almost five years," al-Amodi said.

‘We are only seeking some dignity’

Al-Amodi was placed in a refugee camp in Khahda district, which is near the Somali capital, Mogadishu, shortly after his arrival. He said the camp can barely secure food, health care and education for Yemeni refugees.

"We are only seeking some dignity. The situation in Yemen is dangerous, and the situation here in Somalia is terrible. We depend on the support of local aid groups and individual donations that don’t meet the needs of the refugees. We don’t know what to do," al-Amodi said.

Somalia is a member of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which obligates the country to allow entry in asylum-seekers. However, refugee groups said the country needs major support and capacity building in order to provide proper care for those who have been displaced.

Two Yemeni boys posing next to their tent in the Yemeni Refugees Camp located in the outskirts of Somali capital Mogadishu. ( Courtesy of Muslim Aid)
Two Yemeni boys posing next to their tent in the Yemeni Refugees Camp located in the outskirts of Somali capital Mogadishu. ( Courtesy of Muslim Aid)

Mohammed Abi, a Somali physician working with U.K.-based Muslim Aid in the Yemeni refugee camp of Khahda district, told VOA that the refugees are almost on the brink of starvation, with minimal access to food, water and medical aid.

"They can’t even ask people for help because they don’t speak the Somali language. We are suffering to provide medical aid to the 500 refugees in this camp," Abi said.

According to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR), at least 14,000 Yemeni refugees have sought shelter in Somalia since March 2015. The agency Thursday said it has worked with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to also help 5,087 Somali refugees return home from Yemen due to increased instability in the Persian Gulf country.

Kathryn Mahoney, a public information officer at UNHCR, told VOA the reverse refugee influx from Yemen to Somalia is an indicator of devastation Yemen has seen from years of violence.

"Yemen is the world's largest humanitarian crisis - it is a life-threatening situation for all, refugees included. The situation has deteriorated so severely, that people have to make an impossible decision: stay in the world's largest humanitarian crisis or go to one of the world's largest refugee-producing countries," Mahoney said.

Somalis in Yemen

Despite the conflict, an estimated 266,000 refugees and 10,000 asylum-seekers, mainly from Somalia, are believed to remain in Yemen.

Some Somali refugees who are living in Yemen say the country works as a transit station toward richer and more stable countries, such as to Saudi Arabia.

Abdulkadir Mohamed Ahmed, a Somali father of seven, told VOA his family had to change camps in Yemen four times in five years due to the conflict.

"I was living a good life," Ahmed said. He said he had been running a clothing and shoe business in Mogadishu before being forced to flee with his wife and children during the height of the country's civil war in 1992.

Now settled in Al Kharaz refugee camp, west of Yemen’s port city, Aden, Ahmed said two of his children have died: a 9-month-old son due to dehydration and a 19-year-old daughter due to illness. One of his sons embarked on a dangerous journey to Europe, reaching Switzerland, where he is now in limbo with no refugee status.

Ahmed said most Somali refugees feel trapped in Yemen, suffering from the lack of services in the camps and always at risk of being caught in the middle of the government-Houthi cross fire. Despite the difficulties, the prospects of returning to Somalia are unclear, as many have no means to support their families once they return.

"We don’t just want to be repatriated, we want to be resettled. If we get a small room and toilet in Somalia, I will go back there," Ahmed said.

The Yemen conflict escalated after Iran-backed Houthis overran Sanaa, Yemen's capital, from the Saudi-backed government in September 2014. In 2015, the conflict turned into a proxy war when an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia launched a military and economic campaign against the Houthis.