Somalis in Yemen: Intertwined Basket Cases

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Holly Pickett

A room shared by 8 Somali refugee women in Bassatine, a slum area of Aden, Yemen

Nurta Mohamed Sheikh Maalim is still shocked that she's alive. Maalim remembers very little of how she washed up on Yemen's shores last month, but she does remember swimming for 30 minutes, exhausted and confused, through the shark-infested waters of the Arabian Sea after being dumped overboard by her Somali smugglers. Eight months pregnant at the time, alone and desperate for something better, Maalim says she risked her life to reach Yemen several months after her husband fled Somalia using the same route. Now squatting in the home of a Somali community leader in Bassatine — an African slum outside Yemen's southern port of Aden — she says her husband is probably dead, most likely never having made it to shore. She was nearing the end of her pregnancy when a Somali community leader took her in off the street a few weeks ago and she delivered the baby in a local clinic. She has eight other children who remain in Somalia with her mother. And as for what comes next: neither Maalim nor anyone around her can guess.

Maalim's case is hardly unique. Throughout recent history, Somalis have sought refuge in Yemen, a remote, impoverished country at the tip of the Arabian peninsula, less than 200 miles across a narrow sea. But despite Yemen's own dire situation, it continues to be flooded with Somali refugees seeking the safety, stability and economic opportunities that have long since vanished from their own failed state in the Horn of Africa. In fact, the number of African refugees in Yemen is steadily rising. According to the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR, 72,753 African refugees — mostly from Somalia — reached Yemen this year alone, compared to 50,091 in 2008; hundreds more perished en route, or are presumed missing. A growing number of Ethiopians and Eritreans are fleeing their own civil turmoil and political oppression as well, adding to the steady flight from Somalia.

There is nothing reassuring about the trip out of what is perhaps the world's most dangerous country. Somalis pay between $70 and $120 to pack into smuggler boats that are filled far beyond capacity — it is common for boats that normally fit 50 people to be filled with well over 100. Smugglers often beat their human cargo, who are forced to squat in the same position throughout transit in order to keep the boat stable. Then, fearing the Yemeni coast guard, smugglers often dump their passengers overboard as the boats approach Yemeni territorial waters, forcing the refugees to swim the remaining distance to shore — sometimes well over a mile, according to UNHCR.

Savage beatings and drowned loved ones are part of every refugee's narrative in Kharaz Camp, run by the U.N. in the desert about 100 miles west of Aden, and in the urban slum of Bassatine. "They leave Somalia because of war and money troubles," says Abdel Kadir Hassan, a Somali community leader in Bassatine, who left Mogidishu in 1995 with 16 members of his family. "There is a government here in Yemen; in Somalia there is no government. We can have our farms and get what we need in our country, but there is no government."

The irony however, is that the Somalis who make up Hassan's community are fleeing one basket case country for what is increasingly another. "Yemen isn't a state — it's never been a fully functioning state in terms of a central government that actually provides services to its people," says one foreign aid official who wished to remain anonymous due the sensitivity of his job. For that reason, the residents of Bassatine say they're forced to rely on the generosity of community members and local NGOs to make ends meet; the government — though relatively welcoming, they say — simply can't help them. "We thought that Yemen would be better than Somalia. But it's not," says Sofia Abdel Samat, 20, who lost her younger sister to the sea when the two tried to make the journey less than a month ago. "There is no work here, there is nothing."

Many others have, in the past, tried to journey on to the more lucrative promise of menial labor in neighboring Saudi Arabia. But an intensifying war on Yemen's Saudi border in recent months has made that option increasingly difficult. "Somalis used to smuggle themselves into Saudi Arabia," says Zakaria Omar, a Somali counselor for the international aid agency Doctors Without Borders. "But now there are a lot of armies on the border. People are searching for a better life here. When they arrive, they find the opposite of what they heard. But they have no choice — they have to stay in Yemen."

"Being a refugee in Yemen is a very unlucky situation," says Rocco Nuri, a UNHCR official in Aden. "Yemen is the poorest country in the region, one of the poorest countries in the world . . . [And] refugees are not even legally allowed to work in Yemen even though Yemen signed the 1961 refugee convention."

The Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans can find little employment. Says Abdel Kadir Hassan, deputy community leader of Bassatine's Somalis: "A lot of the men go to the market to wash cars and a lot of the women beg." They have to compete with the locals, who already suffer a 35% unemployment rate, compounded by one of the fastest growing populations in the world. It is not surprising that the foreigners are quickly becoming scapegoats for Yemen's ills.

There is little evidence that the ideology of Somalia's homegrown Islamist radicals has been imported along with the refugee population. But because bodies of African refugees have been recovered from conflict areas along the border, local media have begun to accuse the Africans of playing a role in the northern insurgency.

It is an absurd idea, according to Jilani Ali Maalim, head of the Somali community in Bassatine. "Most of the people who leave Somalia are minorities," says Maalim, who has put up more than 20 non-relatives in his house, all of them people who had nowhere else to go. "They belong to weak tribes, and most of them are not well-educated. For that reason, they sometimes wind up in the conflict zones, because they don't know better."

But there is little doubt that the steady push of refugees from the Horn of Africa into Yemen is proving taxing for a country on the brink of becoming the world's next failed state. Yemen simply doesn't have the resources to deal with multiple insurgencies, a water crisis, development woes, unemployment, widespread poverty and a refugee issue all at once. The country's foreign minister, Abubaker Abdullah al-Qirbi, told TIME in an interview in his office in early December: "The challenge is enormous . . . [The refugees] pose a lot of problems, both [security-related] and also pressure on our education and health services."

Qiribi says the Africans see his country as a coincidental destination in a bigger scheme: "Yemen is the closest country to the Horn of Africa. And they look at Yemen probably not as a refuge, but as a stepping stone to move closer to the Gulf States or to Europe." Qirbi says Yemen needs far more outside help than it's getting to handle the refugees. And Western analysts say all of the converging pressures mean that Yemen may be close to snapping. Indeed, it might not be long before Yemen starts to look a lot like Horn of Africa. "We left our country to escape the war. And that war is still in our minds," says Hassan from the floor of a concrete shack in Bassatine. "We don't need any more troubles."