By Mohamed Omar Mulla*
Many who once left Somalia, fleeing war, are now returning, fleeing a different war.
The majority of those who have landed by boat in the autonomous regions of Puntland and Somaliland since March last year are Somalis, embarking from Yemen’s southern ports.
They had either earlier crossed the Gulf of Aden to escape Somalia’s long-standing conflict, looking to transit north to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, or were part of an old Somali community that had settled in Yemen as traders.
But at least 4,360 of the new arrivals are Yemenis who paid the roughly $150 boat fare to escape the violence and resultant humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where 21.1 million people – 80 percent of the population – require some form of humanitarian protection or assistance.
There is no let-up in the weekly arrivals of boats from Yemen. Between 7 and 20 January, three boats landed in Puntland and two in self-declared independent Somaliland to the northwest. Of the 210 people on board, 52 were Yemenis.
According to Peter de Clercq, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, the needs of the Somali returnees are “very similar, if not identical, to the needs of internally displaced persons [IDPs] in Somalia”.
They are vulnerable to exploitation and violence – especially women and unaccompanied children – and IDPs from minority clans suffer discrimination since they often lack clan protection and connections.
But for the Yemeni refugees, who have no previous knowledge of Somalia, the experience can be daunting.
“In view of the deprivation around them, in a country still suffering from conflict, it’s not an easy situation,” de Clerq told IRIN. “It’s a very small group. They don’t speak Somali. And their intention is to return to Yemen as soon as the situation permits.”
Unprepared for refugees
The Somaliland and Puntland authorities have granted prima facie refugee status to Yemeni nationals, but there is no legal framework or established procedures in place to cope with any mass influx.
Both regions “require support and capacity-building for the reception and assistance of new arrivals,” the UN refugee agency, UNHCR said.
Abokor Abdullahi, a father of five, landed in the port city of Bossaso in Puntland, and was later transferred with other refugees 250 kilometres south to Gardo.
“I was fleeing war, conflict, destruction, famine and lack of economic opportunities. But I don’t see much of a difference here in Somalia,” Abdullahi told IRIN. The family lives in a single room in a small house shared with two other Yemeni families, and pays $25 a month rent.
“We don’t get enough support from the local administration and international development organisations. Only UNHCR gives $150 per month to my family. This does not cover the cost of electricity, water, and house rent, so it’s rubbish. We as refugees want [official] shelters.
“I don’t have employment opportunities to feed my children, and they don’t have access to schools. We desperately need social services like health and education,” he said.
UNHCR has set up a temporary reception centre in Bossaso that provides screening and registration and some basic support for a few nights to both IDPs and refugees. Local officials in Puntland told IRIN a formal refugee camp is planned. But in the meantime, refugees settled in Gardo have to make do with private accommodation.
Gardo, the seat of an ancient sultanate that ruled Puntland is the fourth largest city in the region with a population of 47,000. But it’s located in a relatively deprived area, which means there is little the local authorities can offer the refugees.
“Since the arrival of Yemen refugees in this region, the worry has always been whether we can accommodate that large number of refugees/returnees from Yemen due to our limited resources and the little support we receive from international partners. But we are coping,” Puntland’s deputy minister of interior, Abdullah Hashi, told reporters last week.
The refugees, however, say far more needs to be done. “We desperately need help with food and shelter as a priority number one,” said Falastine Abdullahi, Abokor’s wife. “Sometimes we take only lunch and forget about supper. It’s bad.”
Abdullahi Munir, who, like Abdullahi, was a fisherman in Yemen’s port city of Aden, urged UNHCR to take action. “We are in so much trouble,” he told IRIN.
But the numbers of boats arriving in Somalia is almost matched by those going in the opposite direction, according to the refugee agency. [ ]
Despite the ongoing conflict in Yemen, where some 8,000 lives have been lost since March, more than 90,000 people from across the Horn of Africa, the majority of them from Ethiopia, headed there in 2015. Of those, roughly 10,000 were from Somalia. Almost 100 people died trying to make the crossing.