Yemeni refugees in Somaliland find conditions even harder than at home

Yemeni refugees in Somaliland find conditions even harder than at home
In-depth: Refugees here struggle to feed their children and keep a roof over their head as they face drought and staggering unemployment, reports Matthew Vickery.
6 min read
26 September, 2017
Laila, at 18months, is the most vulnerable member of this family of refugees [Matthew Vickery]
Crouching down in the dimly lit room, Abu Yousuf carefully places 18-month-old Laila under the only mosquito net in the barren building. Ripped holes dot the bottom of the protective cover, rendering it virtually useless, but for the Yemeni refugee, it at least feels like he's doing something for the youngest and most vulnerable member of his impoverished family. 

It's a hot and dusty day when Abu Yousuf introduces his family and two others that live together on the floor of an unfurnished and dilapidated house on the outskirts of Hargeisa, the capital of the breakaway republic of Somaliland.

"We are twenty one refugees living here," Abu Yousuf says, as he shows the one small bathroom and toilet that is shared by the group.

"We're stuck here, we have no money or food."

In the hallway, worried-looking women stand with small children clutched at their hips. The conversation happening around them is nothing new; a lack of money and food is a daily worry.

"It's true, one meal a day is now usual for us Yemeni refugees, but sometimes these families eat nothing," Abdullah, another Yemeni refugee who lives close by, says in near-perfect English - translating for the others.

"For the adults it's ok, but it's the children we are worried about."

Somaliland, which has been blighted for months by a devastating drought, hosts around 5,000 Yemeni refugees who made the journey across the Gulf of Aden from their war-torn homeland to the shores of the self-declared republic.  

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The region, which claimed itself an independent country in 1991 but is still recognised only as an autonomous region of Somalia by the international community, has been a friendly host, refugees say, but the Yemeni community is getting poorer by the day.

The 20 refugees that live with Abu Yousuf fled their hometown of Aden, on Yemen's coast, as battles raged between government forces and Houthi rebels during the first half of 2015.
After rent, the families say they are living off around 30 cents per person per day

Aden has been back under the loosely held control of the government since July 2015, but Abu Yousuf says the group are stuck in Somaliland unable to return to their homes as they cannot afford the trip back over the sea to Yemen. The journey costs around $100 for a child, and $150 for an adult.

With no income, and aid money to the three families totaling just $280 a month combined, there is never any money left at the end of the month.

After rent, the families say they are living off around 30 cents per person per day.

"I can't even think of what will happen to us next month, in two months, if we don't get out of here and out of this situation," Abu Yousuf says.

"Thanks to God our children are OK at the moment, but we have nothing."

With no designated refugee camp for Yemenis in Somaliland, refugees must fork out money for rent in a country where they cannot speak the language and work is hard to come by. Just 100 refugees have managed to gain some form of work, Yemeni refugee community leader Hadi al-Dumeni told The New Arab.

Xhemil Shahu, head of the UNHCR Hargeisa office told The New Arab that, to the organisation's knowledge, the responsible ministry in the region had chosen to advocate local integration rather than create a specific camp.

Furthermore, a minimum of $60 up to a maximum of $150 was available per household depending on family size, while other financial support was available for health, education, and business projects, depending on each case.

Ahmed Shaddari, a former teacher, relies on money
sent to him by his brother, still in Yemen [Matthew Vickery]

Yemenis say, however, that money isn't enough to pay rent.

The 100 working Yemeni refugees are desperately trying to prop up the rest of the community on miniscule wages.

"Refugees when they first arrived here had some savings and possessions," al-Dumeni says from a small apartment in central Hargeisa used as a community-meeting hub.

"But those savings were spent quickly, and possessions have been sold to be able to pay rent and food. If there was a camp there would be no rent to pay."

Down a sandy side-street in bustling Hargeisa, 47-year-old Ahmed Shaddari has a look of despair on his face as he describes his desperate, fruitless search for work. Jobs are hard to come by in Somaliland, where upwards of 75 percent of young people are unemployed. For Yemenis with no Somali language skills, the search for employment can seem impossible.

My brother, who is still in Yemen, sends money when he can to help us

From Taiz, affectionately known as Yemen's cultural capital before war broke out, the former teacher last found work - for a few days - three months ago, and the daily stress of keeping a roof over the heads of his wife and eight children is evident in the way he speaks.

Video: Seven million at risk of starvation in Yemen

"There's no work; we're searching for work but there's nothing," Shaddari says, as his children gather round.

"We call every place and everywhere, we ask everyone, but I can't find anything. My brother, who is still in Yemen, sends money when he can to help us.

"But I've no choice but be here - there is war in my home."

The situation of Yemeni refugees in the region has now reached a critical level, with no money for rent, healthcare or food. According to al-Dumeni, refugees have died due to lack of medical care.

"There are many cases of people who were getting treatment in Yemen for pre-existing medical conditions but they get no treatment here," al-Dumeni explains. "Illnesses such as cancer and diabetes are going untreated.

"Some people have already passed away because there were no means to treat them."

Standing in a bleak rented building on Hargeisa's outskirts, Abu Yousuf says he worries constantly about what would happen if one of his children got ill. He would leave Somaliland in an instant and end his family's nightmare if he had the choice, he says. But with no money, he can't.

"If we could get back to Yemen, at least we would have our homes and somewhere to stay for free," Abu Yousuf says. "We would be able to get jobs because we can speak the language and we could survive. There is a future for us there, here we are starving and stuck."

Matthew Vickery is a Scottish journalist and the author of Employing The Enemy, the story of Palestinian labourers working on Israeli settlements. He was reporting from Somaliland for the BBC and USA Today.

Follow him on Twitter: @MMVickery