December 20, 2009

Discrimination and Abuse Against Ethiopian Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants in Yemen

We are escaping from danger in our country. We are the same as other refugees, and yet we are not treated that way. We have food and water but no protection. We ask why we are different from others, and UNHCR says, “The government does not want to accept you, so we can do nothing.”
—Ethiopian refugee living in Sana’a[142]

There are limits to the assistance that Yemen’s overburdened government can reasonably be expected to provide to the tens of thousands of refugees living on its soil. But the government discriminates against Ethiopian and other non-Somali refugees, relegating them to a second-tier refugee status that leaves them exceptionally vulnerable to harassment and abuse. The negative impact of this policy on Ethiopian refugees is especially acute.

Refusal to Issue Identification Documents to Non-Somali Refugees

All Somali refugees receive government-issued identification documents (ID) that accord them the right to live and work in Yemen. But non-Somali refugees are not issued these or any other official identification documents; they receive only a form issued by UNHCR acknowledging that the agency has recognized them as refugees. This is perhaps the clearest and most substantively important manifestation of the Yemeni government’s discriminatory, two-tier approach to the country’s refugee population.[143]

The UNHCR-issued documents, carried by Ethiopian and other non-Somali refugees, protect their bearers from refoulement. But they are good for little else. The lack of any valid government-issued identification documents severely limits non-Somali refugees’ ability to assert basic entitlements as recognized refugees in Yemen.[144] As one Ethiopian refugee in Sana’a told Human Rights Watch, “The UNHCR ID has no value. The police look at it and say, ‘What is this? It is just paper,’ and throw it away. We can do nothing with it. Anything you need an ID card for, they do not accept it.”[145]

Lacking government-issued ID documents also leaves non-Somali refugees vulnerable to a range of abuses, particularly extortion and arbitrary arrest by abusive members of the security forces. Human Rights Watch interviewed several Ethiopian refugees in Sana’a who said that they had been stopped on the street by police officers who demanded to see their identification and then threatened to arrest them when they could produce only their UNHCR documentation. The pattern that emerges from the accounts gathered by Human Rights Watch is that some police and military personnel deliberately approach Ethiopian nationals and demand to see their IDs precisely because they know they could not possibly have any. In each case the aim appeared to be to use this as a pretext for extortion rather than arrest.

Human Rights Watch interviewed one physically handicapped Ethiopian refugee who had been arrested three times while begging in the capital. The most recent incident occurred in July 2009, when police officers approached him in the street and demanded that he produce his ID card. When he showed them his UNHCR refugee form, he said they told him, “We do not know this card.” They arrested him and then released him before reaching the police station—after he gave them all of the money he had in his pockets.[146]

Another Ethiopian refugee told Human Rights Watch that in February 2009 police officers extorted money from him and another refugee after approaching them at a bus stop. The police insisted that their UNHCR documents were no substitute for a valid ID and put the two men into a police car. “They said, ‘Pay us money,’” one recalled. “They abused me, saying I am bringing bad things to their country and am ruining the country, saying, ‘You are blacks and you are bad people.’” He paid a small bribe and the officers released them both.[147] Other refugees offered similar accounts, and Ethiopian community leaders allege that this kind of low-level extortion is commonplace.[148]

The lack of IDs affects refugees in other ways. For example, Human Rights Watch interviewed two Ethiopian refugees who said that their employers refused to give them several months of back pay after they were fired from their jobs. Both of them told Human Rights Watch that they complained to their employers, the police, and other government agencies. In each case they were turned away and told that they had no right to redress since they could not produce ID documents proving that they had the right to work in the country.[149]

Harassment of Ethiopian Refugees and Migrants

In addition to the practical obstacles and dangers, for many non-Somali refugees their second-class refugee status reinforces deeper patterns of discrimination in Yemen. This is especially true of Yemen’s Ethiopian refugee community. There is widespread racism against Ethiopians and other Africans living in Yemen, a problem made worse by the country’s own high levels of poverty and unemployment. Many Yemenis, struggling to make ends meet themselves, resent African refugees and migrants as people who lay claim to scarce public resources and job opportunities. These sentiments tend to be at least somewhat less pronounced towards Somalis due to longstanding historical ties between the two peoples.

Ethiopians who are not ethnic Somalis also face widespread anti-Christian sentiment. This affects even Muslim Ethiopians due to a widely held public perception that all Ethiopians are Christian. “Even if we are Muslims, they don’t believe us,” one Muslim Oromo man complained to Human Rights Watch. “Even if we pray with them.”[150]

This compounded prejudice manifests itself most commonly in small humiliations that many Ethiopians and other Africans living in Yemen endure on a regular basis. Human Rights Watch interviewed many Ethiopian refugees in Sana’a who complained of being regularly insulted on the street and sometimes physically assaulted. Many female Ethiopian refugees complained of being insulted, sexually harassed, and groped by Yemeni men on the streets or while traveling on crowded public buses. “When I go on the bus and they [Yemeni men] are sitting behind me, they are grabbing me,” one Ethiopian woman in Sana’a told Human Rights Watch. “If you shout at them they threaten you.”[151] Some people said that they had been hit with rotten vegetables or even rocks while walking through the streets. One Ethiopian man told Human Rights Watch, “One time someone threw a rotten tomato at me when I was out with my family. To avoid being beaten I kept quiet.”[152] Another complained that, “We have to watch our children all the time…if they go outside people are shouting at them.”[153]

Perhaps the worst and most unrelenting discrimination and harassment is endured by Ethiopians who are known or believed to be HIV positive. One HIV-positive Ethiopian woman living in Sana’a told Human Rights Watch, “I can’t even go shopping because young men are always throwing stones at me and saying I am a prostitute habesha [Ethiopian].”[154] Another Ethiopian refugee complained that ever since his Yemeni neighbors became aware of his HIV status, “Even animals stay away from me. Nobody respects me.”[155]

Violent Assaults

In some cases the prejudice endured by Ethiopian and other African refugees escalates into serious acts of violence. Human Rights Watch interviewed several Ethiopian refugees who suffered attacks that appeared to be motivated by racial or religious prejudice. In many such cases the victims are unable to secure a meaningful response from the police, who at times appear unwilling to respond to crimes committed by Yemenis against Ethiopians.

One Ethiopian refugee described to Human Rights Watch the attack he suffered in Sana’a one evening in August 2008:

I was walking on the street with my friend and some Yemeni men came and said, “What is that language you are speaking?” We said, “What do you need from us, we are just walking.” They said, “You are destroying our country, get out of our country.” Then they attacked us. My friend ran away and they beat me. The beat me with sticks and fists, all over my body. There were more than five persons beating me.

The man made his way to a police station, returned in the company of several officers, and found some perpetrators of the attack still near the scene. But he said that the men who had attacked him turned to the officers and said, “Are you speaking for these black people from Africa or for us? They are destroying our country. Why are you bothering us about this?” The police left without arresting anyone and did not pursue the case further.[156]

Human Rights Watch gathered accounts of several similar incidents in Sana’a. One man said that he was attacked by a group of eight Yemeni men in the street in early 2009. When he went to the police, an officer told him, “If you have a problem with it you can return to your own country.”[157] An Ethiopian woman told Human Rights Watch that after a Yemeni man assaulted her on the street and grabbed her breasts, “When I went to the police, they just said ‘Our people would never do anything like that,’ and sent me away.”[158] Another Ethiopian woman had regularly gone to the police to complain about harassment from a group of men in her neighborhood. The police took no action but she persisted; she said that the last time she visited the station an irritated police officer told her to stop coming to the station and threatened to arrest her if she returned. “I didn’t go back since,” she said, “though the problems continue.”[159]

Attacks on Oromo Community Activists

Human Rights Watch interviewed several leading members of the Oromo refugee community in Sana’a who said that they had received threatening phone calls. Some had subsequently been attacked. Their callers had demanded that they stop their “political” work, organizing the Oromo refugee community.

Most of the recipients of these calls with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they believed the threats originated with officials at the Ethiopian embassy in Sana’a, but government involvement could not be confirmed. Some of the threatening phone calls received had been made by people speaking Amharic, one of Ethiopia’s national languages. Many members of the refugee community are openly sympathetic to the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front (OLF), an armed opposition group the Ethiopian government has been trying to eradicate since the early 1990s. Allegations of OLF support frequently lie behind government human rights abuses in Ethiopia’s Oromia region, targeting both OLF supporters and peaceful critics of the government.[160] But whatever their source, the danger the threats pose are real.

On December 20, 2008, Ahmed Ibrahim Rore, the head of the Oromo Refugee Association of Yemen (ORAY), was murdered in the street while walking home. For several months he had been receiving anonymous phone calls threatening him with death if he did not discontinue his work with ORAY. ORAY was an organization that sought to promote the interests of the Oromo refugee community in Yemen and arrange cultural activities; many of its members were quite political and promoted an Oromo nationalist and anti-Ethiopian government ideology.[161] On the day he was murdered, Rore had gone to the UNHCR office and asked to meet with a protection officer. He was unable to secure an appointment; the office is often overwhelmed with refugees seeking immediate attention.[162] On his way home he was attacked and murdered. There were no witnesses and the police never identified any suspect in the case.[163]

Rore’s successor as head of ORAY told Human Rights Watch that he began receiving threatening phone calls almost immediately after taking up the organization’s leadership. He said that in August 2008 a group of people visited his home late at night, knocking at the door. He did not open it or see who was there, but before leaving one of them shot and killed a dog that had been barking in the yard. In February 2009 several Ethiopian men accosted him on the street and attempted to push him into a car; a group of Yemeni men intervened and his assailants fled. He also said that in May 2009 he was attacked on the street by an Ethiopian man wielding a metal bar; he ran away and took shelter in a police station. Shortly after this last attack he stepped down as head of ORAY.[164] No one stepped forward to take his place and the organization has since become largely defunct. “ORAY is not still active,” one former member explained to Human Rights Watch, “because we are afraid.”[165]

Each year on World Refugee Day, June 20, UNHCR-Yemen organizes a cultural program that features songs and other cultural performances by Sana’a’s various refugee communities. In 2009 the event was marred by a minor controversy when UNHCR barred Sana’a’s Oromo Ethiopian refugee community from singing politically controversial Oromo nationalist songs, or indeed any songs that touched on their reasons for fleeing Ethiopia or which criticized the government of Ethiopia in any way.[166] UNHCR’s country representative told Human Rights Watch that this was done partly out of fear that songs on any of these topics could put their performers at risk of violence.[167]

[142] Human Rights Watch interview with Ethiopian refugee, Sana’a, July 25, 20 09.

[143] The Refugee Convention requires its parties to issue identity papers to “any refugee in their territory who does not possess a valid travel document.” Refugee Convention, art. 27.

[144] The Refugee Convention guarantees refugees the right to access a range of government services on equal terms with host country nationals. Refugee Convention, arts. 20-25.

[145] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 27, 2009.

[146] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[147] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[148] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ethiopian refugees including refugee community leaders, Sana’a, July 2009.

[149] Human Rights Watch interviews, Sana’a, July 2009.

[150] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 25, 2009.

[151] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 25, 2009.

[152] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 25, 2009.

[153] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 25, 2009.

[154] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 27, 2009.

[155] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[156] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[157] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[158] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 27, 2009.

[159] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 27, 2009.

[160]See Human Rights Watch, Suppressing Dissent; “Charge or Free Ethnic Oromo Terrorism Suspects,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 27, 2008,; “Repression Sets Stage for Non-competitive Elections,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 9, 2008,

[161] Human Rights Watch interviews with former ORAY members, Sana’a, July 2009.

[162] Human Rights Watch obtained a copy of the Request for Service Form Ahmed Ibrahim Rore submitted to the UNHCR protection unit hours before his murder, complaining of continued threats against his life. According to friends and relatives, he had met several times with protection staff to discuss this problem in the weeks and months leading up to his death. Document on file with Human Rights Watch.

[163] Human Rights Watch interviews with Ethiopian refugee community members, Sana’a, July 2009.

[164] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[165] Human Rights Watch interview, Sana’a, July 26, 2009.

[166] Human Rights Watch interviews with Oromo refugee community leaders, Sana’a, July 2009; recording of conversation between UNHCR official and Oromo refugee community leaders, on file with Human Rights Watch.

[167] Human Rights Watch interview with UNHCR, July 26, 2009.