For the tens of thousands of African refugees fleeing to Yemen each year, the journey across the Gulf of Aden can be heartbreakingly difficult and dangerous - and then things often only get worse. As the overcrowded boats approach shore, smugglers sometimes force passengers in the water, and some drown. Many who survive undergo a final indignity at the hands of Yemen's two-tier immigration system.
The vast majority of African refugees fleeing to Yemen come from Somalia and Ethiopia. To its credit, Yemen welcomes Somalis fleeing the decades of conflict in their country. But Ethiopians and others risk being arrested and illegally forced to return home, possibly to face persecution. "We are escaping from danger in our country," an Ethiopian refugee told Human Rights Watch. "We are the same as other refugees, and yet we are not treated that way."
A new report from Human Rights Watch documents the harsh treatment of refugees traveling to Yemen and calls on the Yemeni government to stop systematically arresting Ethiopian asylum seekers and forcibly returning them home. The 53-page report also calls on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to put more pressure on the Yemeni government to meet its obligations toward all asylum seekers and refugees.
"The Yemeni government's mistreatment of Ethiopian asylum seekers is bad enough," said Gerry Simpson, refugee researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. "What makes it so much worse is that many of the victims have been beaten or even seen their loved ones killed during the crossing. When they go to Yemen they are traumatized and need help, not more abuse."
More than 100,000 people have arrived by boat along Yemen's coast during the past two years. Most are fleeing war or persecution at home or are in search of work. Smugglers take them from either the Somali port city of Bosasso or the town of Obock in Djibouti. The smugglers, especially those operating out of Bosasso, often treat their passengers with astonishing brutality. The report documents cases of passengers being beaten and raped. Some were thrown overboard miles from shore.
Once the vessels sail within sight of the Yemeni coast, it is not uncommon for the smugglers to force their passengers into the water. "As the boat came close to Yemen they started beating the people to get them off the boat," a Somali man told Human Rights Watch. "[The smuggler] had said everyone should go, but the people did not go because they are afraid. They caught my little girl and dropped her into the sea. She was 3 years old. I fought with the man, and he hit me with a stick and I lost some of my teeth. After that they started pushing all of us into the sea. They dropped all of my children into the sea - five of them. The 3-year-old girl died."
If they make it to land, non-Somalis who are caught by security forces typically have no meaningful opportunity to claim asylum. Most often, they are imprisoned and put on a fast track toward deportation. It is not known how many asylum seekers have been arrested and deported in this way. Neither UNHCR nor anyone else has regular access to people in immigration detention. Ethiopian embassy officials in the Yemeni capital, San'a, interview people awaiting deportation to Ethiopia, and there are disturbing indications that those officials have coerced asylum seekers into agreeing to return home.
The Ethiopian asylum seekers who manage to negotiate the obstacles in their path and reach a UNHCR office without being arrested are able to apply for refugee status. If UNHCR recognizes them as refugees the government will not arrest and deport them. But they still face discriminatory government policies that relegate them to a kind of second-tier refugee status. And their problems are not over.
The Yemeni government does not issue official identification documents to non-Somali refugees. That bars them from claiming rights and services to which they should be entitled. Ethiopian refugees also suffer harassment and violence, fueled in part by the perception that the government will not protect them. In many cases, Yemeni police officers have refused to investigate or arrest Yemenis responsible for serious crimes against Ethiopian refugees. Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of assault, sexual harassment, and murder of Ethiopian refugees that went unpunished.
The Human Rights Watch report acknowledges that UNHCR has a difficult job in Yemen, and notes that there are serious practical limits to its ability to influence Yemeni government policy. Still, the report concludes, the refugee agency has not done enough to pressure Yemeni authorities to protect the rights of non-Somali refugees and asylum seekers.