African Refugees

From Somalia to Europe via Yemen

Every year, tens of thousands of Somali refugees cross the Gulf of Aden to reach the country on the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula. While they are not turned away or sent home, their prospects in Yemen are grim. Klaus Heymach and Susanne Sporrer report

"Please take my child with you to Europe!" says Anisa. The slender woman with the red headscarf is deadly serious. "Then at least my daughter will be there." The 22-year-old Somali woman has not yet made it that far: to the place for which she risked her life four years ago.

Back then, she squeezed herself into a tiny boat with forty others. The people traffickers promised to bring them away from the war in their native country across the Gulf to Yemen. The crossing took three days.

Fleeing to one of the poorest countries in the world

Every year, tens of thousands of refugees, most of whom come from Somalia, risk their lives getting to Yemen, which they consider to be their way out of the violence and misery they know in Africa. It is of little consequence to them that the country on the southernmost tip of the Arabian Peninsula is itself one of the poorest in the world.

"Yemen is the easiest place for us to get to," explains Hassan Jama Mohamed from Somalia, who completed the journey two weeks ago. Easier, that is, than getting to distant Morocco.

The crossing is dangerous. Hundreds drown every year; often while the traffickers simply throw them overboard. But the Yemeni coast is over 2,000 kilometres long and hardly patrolled at all. As soon as the refugees reach the mainland, they feel safe: Yemen is the only country on the peninsula that gives all Somalis refugee status without checking every individual case.

The UNHCR praises this policy as being "humanitarian" and "very generous". Just under 80,000 Somalis and a few thousand Ethiopians and Eritreans are registered as refugees in Yemen. But these are the official figures; the actual figure is probably several times as high.

Strict segregation of the sexes in Yemeni society

Yemen has not a lot to offer the Somalis. Although they too are Muslims, the Yemenis look down on the black Somalis and call them "servants". The only work they can get is as street sweepers or cleaning ladies.

Many of the refugees have trouble adapting to the strict segregation of the sexes in the conservative Yemeni society. This is why almost all Somalis view Yemen as no more than an interim stop on their way to a better future, preferably a better future in Europe.

Hassan saved up for a year until he had the hundred dollars he needed for the journey across the Gulf. In late September, when the sea calms down, the main season for the hair-raising crossings begins. The 35-year-old left his wife and five children in Somalia. Hassan had to swim the last three kilometres to the beach. But even when he got there, he was no closer to his ultimate goal.

UNHCR: "We are not a travel agency"

"I want to get to Europe as quickly as possible," he says. Like many of his compatriots, he hopes that the UNHCR will bring him to Great Britain. Abdul Malik Abboud, head of the UNHCR office in Sanaa, puts a damper on such expectations: "We are not a travel agency." The UN commission sends only a few dozen refugees to Europe or the USA every year.

All that remains for those who are left behind is to put their lives in the hands of the traffickers for a second time. Hassan now has to scrape together the 35 dollars he needs to pay a Beduin to bring him into no-mans land in the desert on the border to Saudi Arabia.

According to estimates, every day hundreds of Africans try to get one step closer to Europe by taking this route. But only very few actually make it.

Saudi Arabia does not accept African refugees

Instead of having to contend with rough seas and vicious sharks, they have to deal with poisonous snakes and merciless border guards on this, the second leg of their odyssey. Those who do make it, live the life of outlaws because unlike its southern neighbour, the affluent kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not accept African refugees. Those who are caught face deportation back to their home country; back to the place where they began their tortuous journey.

This is what happened to Rodha's husband. Two months ago, he set off alone for Saudi Arabia having spent seven years in Yemen. The thirty-year-old originally intended to send for her or at least to send her money for herself and the baby. But then he was caught by the Saudi police and put in a plane back to Somalia.

As soon as he can scrape together the hundred dollars for the people traffickers, he will squeeze himself into another small fishing boat and try his luck all over again in Yemen.

Klaus Heymach, Susanne Sporrer

© TAZ/ 2005

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

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