Yemen conflict drives Somali refugees back home

Once a week, a merchant boat makes a 30-hour trip from Yemen to Somaliland. Instead of carrying livestock โ€“ its usual freight โ€“ it now carries hundreds of people fleeing the conflict in Yemen. Some of them are Yemenis, but many are Somalis who had once fled in the opposite direction.

Our Observer Mohamed Jibril is a freelance journalist who lives in Somaliland, a self-declared state that is internationally recognized as an autonomous region of Somalia. There, he recently met some of these men and women as they disembarked in the port of Berbera, and visited them the next day at a temporary shelter.

The ship departs from Mocha, a port in Yemen on the Red Sea, and then travels down through the Gulf of Aden to arrive here. The numbers of people it carries has been growing every week for the past few weeks. Itโ€™s an exhausting trip, physically and emotionally. I spoke to one Somali man who told me that it costs 100 dollars per person, and that he didnโ€™t have the money to bring two of his five children with him. He had to leave them with friends back in Mocha. He planned to head straight to Mogadishu to try to find some money in order to send for them.

There are several categories of people coming from Yemen. The biggest categories are people from Somaliland and from Somalia. Back in 1988, many people from what is now called Somaliland fled repression and headed to Yemen. Later, in 1991, people from different parts of Somalia also fled spiralling violence to go to Yemen. At first, they all lived in refugee camps, but they soon started businesses, namely in the livestock trade, and set down roots. Over the years, plenty of people returned home to Somaliland and Somalia, but many stayed in Yemen to continue their businesses. Others who didnโ€™t do as well, notably Somali Bantus, stayed in Yemen simply because they didnโ€™t have the means to leave โ€“ and are still stuck there, in old refugee camps.

One of the women I spoke to said that the situation for Somalis in Yemen is now very tense, and itโ€™s not just because of the deadly air raids and the scarcity of food. The Somali government has offered its support to the Saudi-led coalition thatโ€™s currently bombing Yemen, so of course many Yemenis are very weary of the Somalis living among them. This woman said she was afraid of getting attacked in the street!

โ€œFor them, it was the only way outโ€

Another, smaller category is Yemenis. [Editorโ€™s Note: According to local officials, at least 1,700 Yemenis have asked for asylum in Somaliland. Many Yemenis have also fled by boat to neighbouring Djibouti.] Some want to go to Ethiopia, but it seems most want to stay here because they hope the conflict in Yemen will be over soon, and that theyโ€™ll be able to go home.

The smallest groups are the Ethiopians and Syrians. The Ethiopians had gone to Yemen for work; as for the Syrians, they had fled the conflict in their own homeland. These people were trapped in Yemen when the conflict started there, and this was the only way out.

At the reception centre, people are screened by The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), and given basic services like food, water, and medical treatment. They can only stay three days, however, and itโ€™s very crowded โ€“ many have to sleep outside, on the ground. When I visited, there were only five toilets for more than 400 people.

Depending on their nationality and their travel plans, they are given some assistance to travel to their next destination. If theyโ€™re Somalis, their transport fees are paid so they can get home to their families. If theyโ€™re Yemeni or Syrian and want to go to a third country, they might receive assistance as well. As for foreigners who want to stay in Somaliland, theyโ€™re sent to the capital Hargeisa, where they can apply for asylum. But there is no refugee camp as of yet; theyโ€™re assisted by a local Yemeni organisation. They need more help, though, and have been looking for donations.

Source:, ย