Yemen already receives scant international attention over its humanitarian crisis, which the UN has called the “worst in the world.” However, the world is also unaware of the suffering Yemenis who have fled the war endure, due to their lack of visibility. Many are abandoned and in difficult circumstances, sometimes facing hostility in the countries in which they hope to settle.
Over 190,000 Yemenis fled the country at the onset of the conflict in March 2015, after the Saudi-UAE-led coalition declared war against the Houthi rebels and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure with multiple devastating air strikes. The number of refugees has tapered off since the beginning of 2018, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), even though the conflict has worsened. Indeed, in June 2018, the UAE and Saudi Arabia launched one of their biggest assaults on the critical port city of Hudaida. By then, already 8 million Yemenis were on the edge of famine.
At various times, both the UAE and Saudi Arabia imposed crippling blockades on the country, put harsh restrictions on Yemen’s northern border, blocked sea exits, and have halted operations from the airport in Sanaa. This has left around 3 million Yemenis classified as Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP).
Some of those who could escape fled to the Horn of Africa, due to its geographic proximity to Yemen on the other side of the Red Sea. Often traveling via tiny fishing vessels, many settled in Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, and surrounding countries.
Around 38,000 Yemenis went to Djibouti in 2015. While some have settled in the capital city, others are in direr conditions. For example, the UN reported last year that around 2,200 Yemenis lived in the tent city of Marzaki.
Yemenis in Marzaki are dependent on external aid and receive “humanitarian assistance to cover their basic needs.”
A UNHCR spokesperson told Inside Arabia that Yemenis in Marzaki are dependent on external aid and receive “humanitarian assistance to cover their basic needs including support with shelter, water and sanitation, food in-kind and in cash, and cash for household items.”
However, the camps are often not secure nor well-equipped. Testament to this are frequent attacks by wild animals including snakes, scorpions, and even baboons – which have raided camps and taken the small food supplies allocated to people. This comes while refugees endure scorching temperatures, with complaints that they are not receiving enough support.
Though a member of the Saudi-led coalition, the Egyptian government has taken in its fair share of Yemeni refugees, currently hosting over 10,000. As with Sudan, Yemenis can integrate more easily into Egyptian society due to sharing the Arabic language.
“The Egyptian government allows Yemenis to reach its land with simple procedures such as medical reports and allows the elderly and their companions to enter Egypt in a simple way,” Ahmed Badawy, Chairman of the Egyptian Refugee Support Foundation – an NGO which provides legal support for Yemeni refugees—told Inside Arabia. “They are allowed to stay and renew their residency every six months, so it is easy for those who have the means to leave Yemen to settle here.”
“However, it is expensive due to personal expenses and housing rent, which doubles the suffering of the refugees in Egypt in general,” said Badawy. “Many struggle with living conditions as a result.”
Despite this, there is still reportedly limited international resources for Yemeni refugees in Egypt, as with other places.
“The UNHCR does not provide adequate support to a large number of refugees, and the reason may sometimes be due to Yemenis not registering themselves as refugees nor following the UNHCR procedures,” said Badawy. “This means many are cut off from receiving essential aid.”
The same rings true in other countries.
“With many already impoverished in Sudan, due to a high cost of living, Yemenis face a worsening economic crisis, exacerbated by the heavy impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the economy,” said the UNHCR spokesperson. There are currently just over 1,200 Yemeni refugees in Sudan.
In Malaysia, where around 20,000 Yemenis reside, refugees cannot send their children to state-run schools, and are unable to legally work. Due to a lack of income, many struggle to afford a basic life.
Seeking to Build New Lives
Though Yemenis endure harsher circumstances in Djibouti’s Marzaki camp, some have slightly more favorable conditions and have settled in the capital city where they are able to flourish and build new lives.
“The Yemeni refugees in Djibouti have a reputation for being industrious and innovative.”
“The Yemeni refugees in Djibouti have a reputation for being industrious and innovative. Particularly, in Obock, they play a big role in the socio-economic environment: they are fisherman, they drive tuktuks, they are artisans, and much more,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.
“They are known to be entrepreneurs and to have a strong sense of trade. Yemeni refugees in Djibouti-Ville have opened their own business, from restaurants to small grocery stores.”
Likewise, in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, as Yemenis are legally not allowed to work, some have set up various restaurants in the city, adding a new cultural dynamic. These also serve as centers where Yemenis can discuss problems and seek advice from others related to legal or societal matters. Though there have been immigration raids, where Yemenis are at risk of being taken to detention camps.
Yemenis have also settled in Jordan and Turkey, seeking to create new lives, with the latter in particular being welcoming of refugees compared with other countries. There are large student populations in Turkey, where many have fled from the cities of Ibb and Taiz.
Harsh Restrictions and Hostility
In other circumstances, host countries have not been so welcoming.
Some Yemenis have even tried to reach South Korea from Malaysia. Around 500 Yemenis arrived on South Korea’s Jeju Island in 2018, and have sought asylum in the country, yet are barred from leaving the island. Parts of the society have reacted to Yemenis with much xenophobic rhetoric, akin to parts of Europe’s hostile reactions to refugees.
There have been several calls for Yemenis to be rejected and forcibly returned to Yemen, despite the war and humanitarian crisis there.
Spain has also created difficulties for Yemenis seeking asylum elsewhere. At the beginning of 2020, Spain declared that refugees passing through must acquire a transit visa, meaning Yemenis cannot go through the country without obtaining extra permissions. Prior to this, Yemenis could plan to travel to a third country while stopping in Spain.
Since the start of the war, the US has accepted just over 50 Yemeni refugees.
Some eyes are also on the United States, which supported the Saudi-led coalition’s military efforts. Since the start of the war, the US has accepted just over 50 Yemeni refugees. Donald Trump’s restrictive travel ban on several countries, including Yemen, has been a driving factor of this policy. Since Trump became President in January 2017, just two Yemeni refugees settled in the US in 2018 and one was resettled in fiscal year 2019, according to state department statistics.
There have been criticisms that the US should be doing more to help Yemeni refugees.
“The United States’ travel ban is one of the cruelest decisions that impacts Yemenis seeking a safe haven. The US under both Obama and Trump have supported the Saudi-led war and blockade on Yemen,” Aisha Jumaan, President of Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation, told Inside Arabia. “Unfortunately, as long as there is no large number of Yemeni refugees visible, Yemenis’ suffering will continue to be invisible.”
“The US should insist on lifting the blockade on Yemen so that people’s livelihoods can start healing. They should offer Yemenis refugee status so that they can be eligible to the services refugees get.”