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Tougher Times Ahead for Yemen's Somali Refugees

Somali refugees gather at an area in the village of Basateen near the Yemeni port city of Aden (File)

During the past 20 years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled from Somalia to Yemen, where they are granted automatic asylum. The Yemeni government now says it may change that, saying the Somalis are a burden and a security risk. But new laws may not stem the tide of people crossing the Gulf of Aden. Heather Murdock reports from Basateen, a sprawling slum in southern Yemen that is home to 15,000 refugees.

For many Somali refugees, making the harrowing trip to Yemen is simply an effort to stay alive.

This man says he fled his country to escape al-Shabab, the growing al-Qaida-linked militia in Somalia. The man, who does not want his name used, was a journalist in Mogadishu six months ago, but after three of his colleagues were killed and he received a death threat, he fled.

Refugees like him come to Yemen packed on tiny fishing boats and are often dumped in the water far off shore. Those who can swim help those who cannot try to make it to land, sometimes while the Yemeni army fires at the smugglers. Many die on the way.

Somali asylum seekers rest on side of main road after an exhausting trip upon arrival on the beach of Hasn Beleid village, east of Red Sea port of Aden (file photo)
Somali asylum seekers rest on side of main road after an exhausting trip upon arrival on the beach of Hasn Beleid village, east of Red Sea port of Aden (file photo)

Survivors face discrimination and crushing poverty in Yemen. Almost half of the people in this arid Arabian country live on less than $2 a day. Jobs are scarce and when refugees do find work, it is usually menial labor. Many Somalis say life was much easier at home, but at least in Yemen, they do not have to worry about getting shot.

Life may soon become even harder for those seeking refuge in Yemen. In the coming weeks, the government will be reconsidering a policy that offers asylum to all Somalis. Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Muthana Hassan says this is because the government believes most Somalis who come to Yemen are not fleeing war or persecution, but looking for jobs.

"Most of them are not to be considered under the asylum criteria. So that is why we think we need to reconsider the issue, in order not to, first of all, encourage people to come here," he said.

Hassan says refugees may also threaten Yemen's security in the future. Al-Shabab has promised to send fighters to re-enforce al-Qaida in its fight against West, and militants could cross the Gulf disguised as refugees.

But a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Sana'a, Andrew Knight, says militants have not been known to use refugees or refugee boats to enter Yemen.

"Of course we've got a huge coastline that is not very secure, so of course this is an issue. However, until today we have absolutely no evidence of any link between refugees and terrorists," said Knight.

Ethiopian refugee and human rights activist Abiy Abebe says if Somalis are required to prove they are refugees, and not economic migrants, they will face the same harsh treatment as others fleeing war, drought, and political turmoil in the Horn of Africa.

Abede says Ethiopians and Eritreans who land on Yemeni shores are often arrested and deported without a chance to present evidence of persecution in their home countries.

And the Yemeni government, which is signatory to international treaties that obligate it to house refugees, does not appear to be embarrassed by the deportations. Officials openly complain they believe refugees import disease, crime, and poverty.

But according to the UNHCR's Knight, those claims are the common refrains of governments struggling to care for large incoming refugee populations, and amount to little more than what he calls "uninformed xenophobia."