Oromos in Yemen: Prospects slim for languishing refugees

Refugees behind bars said they are not provided with enough food or water

July 12, 2012 (Yemen Times) – “We are not being treated like human beings,” says an Oromo-Ethiopian refugee at a prison on the sprawling grounds of Yemen’s immigration center compound.

The U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that 120 Africans are currently held at the center. The prisoners, who keep meticulous notes and ready copies of important documents, report 114 inmates, and provide a breakdown based on gender, age and ethnicity.

UNHCR says all prisoners at the immigration prison are “self-detained.” They are free to leave when they please but choose to stay until their demands are met, the refugee agency claims. Current prisoners deny this claim.

“Oromo prisoners and our representatives are in a government prison. It’s news to us that prisoners are free to enter and leave prison at their own will.”

Although UNHCR Public Information Associate Jamal Al-Najjar says most of the Ethiopian and Eritrean prisoners are migrants, not refugees. Prisoners at the detention center provided Yemen Times with copies of their UNHCR letters of recognition of their refugee status.

Government Policy on Refugees

Yemen, the only country in the Arabian Peninsula that is a signatory to the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, does not recognize Ethiopians and Eritreans escaping political persecution in their respective countries as refugees. While granting prima facie refugee status to all Somalis who survive the dangerous voyage to Yemen, government policy toward Ethiopians and Eritreans is to “track them down, arrest them and deport them,” according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The HRW considers the Yemeni government’s refusal to grant refugee status to Ethiopians and Eritreans as “discriminatory policy that violates international law.” UNHCR Associate Protection Officer Gamal Al-Jabi defended the government’s position.

“It is not a matter of discrimination,” Al-Jabi says. “Somalia has been at war for two decades. You can’t compare the situation there to Ethiopia or Eritrea.”

Demands Denied

During the height of 2011’s political uprising, as Yemenis demanded the ouster of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Ethiopians and Eritreans faced increased violence from Yemeni security forces.

Demanding a permanent solution—resettlement outside Yemen as opposed to financial assistance in Yemen—refugees set up tents outside the UNHCR building in Sana’a and began an 11-month demonstration that forced the temporary closing of the UNHCR office.

UNHCR confirms that after repeatedly asking the refugees and asylum-seekers to leave, it called the Yemeni security forces—the same security forces that shot and killed unarmed protesters in Change Square—to move them off the property. Yemeni security forces arrived with buses paid for by UNHCR to move the demonstrators. Security forces told the refugees and asylum-seekers that they would be taken to Al Kharaz refugee camp in Aden.

“We gathered all of our things to take with us,” says 26-year-old Fatima, a former prisoner at the immigration prison who spent 11 months in a tent outside the UNHCR building with her two children, currently ages two and four.

“We were told we were going to Al-Kharaz; they took us to prison instead,” she says.

Dreams Deferred

Fatima, an Ethiopian national, was happily married and settled in Eritrea to an Eritrean husband prior to her arrival in Yemen.

“Things in Eritrea were good,” she says. “My husband was a fishermen; I was comfortable there. The next thing I knew, he was dead. They said he was part of the political opposition; they searched our home and found a gun. I was arrested and released. They came back to re-arrest me the next day. I snuck out a back window with my one-year-old son and left for Djibouti the next day.”

Prison Conditions

According to Fatima, prisoners at the immigration prison in Sana’a were given one piece of bread per day, and if they had children, they had to share. There were no mattresses, and there was only one blanket per adult. Fatima had her children sleep on it, while she slept on the concrete floor.

Four hundred people were originally taken from outside the UNHCR building to the immigration prison, according to UNHCR.

“We were 40 women and 54 children in one room,” Fatima says. “The entire month I was in jail, they gave us no water. We had someone from the Ethiopian community bring water to the prison everyday. It was never enough. My son was sick and going to die. It took a month before they let me leave so I could take him to a hospital.”

Limited Options

Despite the described substandard conditions of the prison, fifteen days after her son was released from the hospital, Fatima tried to return there with her children. They had no food, no water and the few belongings they packed for Al Kharaz refugee camp were at the prison. The prison refused to take them; Fatima and her children were on the streets until an Ethiopian woman took them in.

Haunting Images

Passing the cell door of the room holding women and children, a discreet camera snaps a quick photo, while curious looks and words are briefly exchanged before the qat-chewing prison guard reappears and ushers the women away from the door. Most prisoners look underfed, and all complain they don’t receive enough food. Prospects for resettlement—the permanent solution refugees are seeking—are grim. Of UNHCR’s resettlement target of 1,300 individuals for 2011, 389 people departed. The security restrictions on UNHCR staff and committees from host countries are expected to severely affect this year’s resettlement target as well.

Yemen Times