Yemenis fleeing to Somaliland ‘struggle for survival’

When Nadia*,25, arrived at Berbera Port in early May after a nauseating and protracted 30 hours at sea, she knew nothing about the country where she would be landing. Nadia wasn’t even convinced it would be safe.

“I didn’t even know where Hargeisa or Somaliland was,” said the young woman, who used to work as a civil servant in Sanaa.

But this didn’t stop her, her mother and three sisters from shelling out the $100 a person to make the journey from conflict-ridden Yemen across the Gulf of Aden.

It is here, in the self-declared autonomous nation of Somaliland, which the international community still considers a part of greater Somalia, that Nadia and part of her family are now picking up the pieces after fleeing an escalating war in Yemen.

War broke out in Yemen at the end of March with a Saudi Arabia-led aerial campaign purported to incapacitate the Houthi group that took over the capital in September 2014. Following a recent five-day humanitarian ceasefire, hopes that it would last have been dashed as the bombing campaign continued.

The Houthis, allied with military forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are also facing fierce resistance from local militias, known as popular resistance committees, in the country’s southern and eastern regions where fighters are also vying to blunt the Houthi offensive.

As new battlefronts open up and casualties mount – 1,850 killed and 500,000 displaced according to the UN’s latest figures – few see a decisive end to the conflict anytime soon. Aid agencies and government officials worry this could further strain nations accepting the Middle East’s newest round of refugees.

According to figures from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), since the Saudi Arabia-led coalition’s campaign on Yemen began, over 18,000 persons have fled Yemen to the Horn of Africa. A third of those are arriving in Somaliland and Puntland, a semi-autonomous north eastern Somali region.

A vast majority of arrivals are considered “returnees” since they hold Somali citizenship. Many Somalis had fled to Yemen to escape years of civil strife in greater Somalia. Yemeni passport holders are granted refugee status, but both groups are arriving with a sense of uncertainty.

In the absence of economic and physical capacity of Somaliland’s government – and aid agencies that have complained to government officials of their tightening budgets – the burden of assisting those fleeing Yemen’s war is largely falling on local communities.

“A lot of organisations are assuming that communities will support the returnees,” said Hussein Mohamed Osman, the Berbera Branch Secretary for the Somaliland Red Crescent Society. He says aid organisations will offer assistance where they can.

The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) is providing financial support to cover transport expenses for returnees from Berbera Port to their place of origin but both government officials and aid workers, speaking on condition of anonymity, have told Al Jazeera that this response is limited in comparison to the overwhelming needs of the refugees.

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