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Somali Refugee Growth Poses Challenges for Yemen

Continuing strife in Somalia between Islamist groups has spurred more than 110,000 civilians to seek asylum in neighboring countries in the past year. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which provided the figures, says that half that number has flocked to already overburdened camps in Kenya. 22,000 more have gone to Ethiopia, and 32,000 have made their way north by sea across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

Yemeni officials have recently stepped up attacks on suspected al-Qaeda extremists, and are said to be concerned about the possible recruitment of new arrivals. In Washington, UNHCR Senior Media Director Tim Irwin says he understands Sanaa officials’ role in protecting their borders. But he notes that Yemen shows little evidence of providing fertile ground for the recruitment of Somali terrorists.

Growing numbers of Somalis seeking asylum are crossing the Gulf of Aden and heading for Yemen
Growing numbers of Somalis seeking asylum are crossing the Gulf of Aden and heading for Yemen

“The majority of refugees in any refugee situation are women and children, and I don’t think that there’s any evidence that these individuals are travelling to Yemen for any other reason than to escape the violence of their homeland. What they find in Yemen may not be a new prosperous life. But it is a safe life, where their lives are not in danger, and I think that’s what attracts continuing numbers of Somalis away from their very fractured country,” said Irwin.

The overcrowded Dadaab camp in northern Kenya continues to draw residents fleeing fighting in southern Somalia between the al-Shabab insurgency group and its Islamist rivals. But Irwin says those successfully fleeing north across the perilous Gulf of Aden find a different, less confining lifestyle.

“The majority of Somali refugees in Yemen don’t live in camps. There aren’t any official UNHCR-run or Yemeni government-run refugee camps. The people are able to move as they want, so they can live in the cities, as many of them do. And of course, there are going to be these improvised settlements, where you’re going to see Somali refugees living. But I think we haven’t seen any evidence that individuals are being radicalized. And I think we’re grateful to the government of Yemen for continuing to accept these Somali refugees, who have fled because they face great dangers at home,” he said.

Nigerian airline bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who unsuccessfully tried to blow up an American plane over Detroit, Michigan on Christmas Day, has admitted having ties to al-Qaeda terrorists based in Yemen. The disclosure, as well as a recent campaign against Islamist fighters in Yemen by government authorities, reportedly aided by U.S. intelligence, have brought added media attention to Yemeni efforts at fighting terrorism.

UNHCR spokesman Irwin says the heightened alert only reinforces a determination by host country officials to monitor new arrivals carefully to ascertain their rights and guarantees of asylum.

“When we have these kinds of security incidents, it’s perfectly understandable that governments around the world would look to tightening control of their borders and to ensuring that radicalized individuals don’t enter their countries, and we would absolutely support that. What we would say, though, is that when you look at the movement of people away from violent and insecure situations, the vast majority of them are genuine refugees with genuine protection concerns. And the only way they can have those concerns heard is if they are able to enter a country, seek asylum, and then go through the national asylum procedures, which then determine whether or not they are genuine refugees,” he said.

Arrivals of African refugees in Yemen last year, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia, doubled over 2008 to an estimated 74,000. Rather than signaling increasing alarm among Yemeni officials about potential levels of Islamist radicalization, UNHCR’s Tim Irwin suggests that authorities should acknowledge the heightened insecurity and conflict in the region as they go about solving the ongoing crises that continue to challenge their populations.

“The country (Somalia) is being affected by a drought. But primarily, and we only need to look at what’s going on on the ground, be it in the capital of Mogadishu or other parts of the country, where you’ve got rival militias fighting one another, and with innocent civilians caught in the middle. I think you can very clearly see a link between escalating violence and insecurity in Somalia and increased arrivals of asylum-seekers in the region,” he observed.