(New York) - The Yemeni government should stop systematically arresting Ethiopian asylum seekers and forcibly returning them to Ethiopia, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Human Rights Watch also called on the United Nations refugee agency to do more to press the Yemeni government to meet its obligations toward all asylum seekers and refugees.
The 53-page report, "Hostile Shores: Abuse and Refoulement of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Yemen," details the harrowing sea crossing from Africa that tens of thousands make each year to reach Yemen's shores. But for many that is only the beginning of their ordeal. Yemen welcomes arriving Somalis, but Ethiopians and others risk being arrested and illegally forced to return home, possibly to face persecution. The government views Somalis as refugees with protected status, but it views Ethiopians and others as illegal migrants, to be automatically deported. The report also shows that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not done nearly enough to press the Yemeni government to change its abusive policies against Ethiopian asylum seekers.
"Illegal immigration is a big problem for Yemen's government, but hunting asylum seekers down like criminals and sending them back illegally is no way to solve the problem," said Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The Yemeni government needs to respect their basic right to seek asylum."
More than 100,000 people - almost all of them from Somalia and Ethiopia - 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 by boat from either the Somali port city of Bosasso or the town of Obock in Djibouti. Conditions aboard the boats are inhumane and the smugglers - especially those operating out of Bosasso - often treat their passengers with astonishing brutality, robbing, beating, and even murdering them.
Smugglers order passengers on the overcrowded boats not to move, even to stretch cramped limbs, which is impossible since the journey from Bosasso normally lasts one to three days. They routinely beat their passengers with whips and sticks. Many suffer far worse. Human Rights Watch documented cases of passengers being murdered and thrown overboard and of women being sexually assaulted and raped on board the overcrowded boats while other passengers looked on helplessly. Others suffocate, locked into cramped and airless spaces below deck as punishment or simply as a way of cramming more people on board. Hundreds of people die every year during the crossings.
For many, the worst danger lies when the boats are finally in sight of Yemen. Many smugglers, to minimize their own risk of capture, force their passengers to leap into deep water and swim, beating or even stabbing them if they try to refuse. Many, not knowing how to swim or simply too exhausted from their ordeal on the boats, drown within sight of shore. Human Rights Watch interviewed people who watched other passengers - in some cases even their own children -drown less than 200 meters from land.
Those who reach Yemen face one of two very different receptions, depending not on why they have come but on where they come from. The Yemeni government recognizes all Somali nationals as prima facie refugees, meaning that they are automatically entitled to all the protections of refugee status. But for Ethiopians and other non-Somalis the reverse is true; the Yemeni government treats all of them as illegal immigrants, even if they face a serious risk of persecution in the countries they fled.
Ethiopians and other non-Somalis must keep to the shadows to avoid capture by the security forces. Those who are caught are generally imprisoned and put on a fast track toward deportation, with no meaningful opportunity to claim asylum. The security forces have even arrested asylum seekers at the UNHCR-run Kharaz refugee camp, in one case removing more than 50 Ethiopians after detaining them in UNHCR's own compound overnight.
No one knows exactly how many asylum seekers have been arrested and deported in this manner. Neither UNHCR nor anyone else has regular access to people in immigration detention. Ethiopian embassy officials in the Yemeni capital, Sana'a, interview people awaiting deportation to Ethiopia, and there are disturbing indications that those officials have coerced asylum seekers into agreeing to return back 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.
The Yemeni government will not issue official identification documents to non-Somali refugees, preventing 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 even murder of Ethiopian refugees that went unpunished.
UNHCR has an enormous and complicated job in Yemen, and there are serious practical limits to its ability to influence Yemeni government policy, Human Rights Watch said. But the refugee agency has not been forceful enough in pressuring the Yemeni authorities to protect the rights of non-Somali refugees and asylum seekers.
UNHCR has repeatedly met with Yemeni government officials behind closed doors, but this strategy has failed to deliver results, and the agency has been unwilling to express public concern about the government's actions. The report calls on UNHCR to speak out publicly about Yemeni government abuses where necessary and to press more forcefully for access to potential asylum seekers in detention.
International law prohibits refoulement, or the return of refugees to countries where they face a serious risk of persecution. Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula to have ratified the 1951 Refugee Convention, which requires asylum seekers and refugees to be accorded rights without discrimination on the basis of their national origin.
"UNHCR's strategy of quiet diplomacy with the Yemeni government simply isn't working," Gagnon said. "The agency needs to start treating the plight of Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees in Yemen as a priority and not a secondary concern."
Quotes from Asylum Seekers and Refugees Interviewed by Human Rights Watch in Yemen:
If there are 100 boats, maybe the people from only two or three will say there was no problem. Every boat has stories more difficult than the last one. You will meet one person and think, this is terrible. Then you meet the next boat, and you will hear something you cannot even imagine. You feel heartache.
-Humanitarian worker at a reception center for arrivals on the southern coast of Yemen.
When we were on the sea, she was sitting near the driver. They wanted to rape the girl. When I heard her scream I stood up, but they beat me with a stick on my neck. They played with her. They raped her. They did what they wanted. And when they raped my sister, they kicked her. I saw her; she was crying. But no one talked. If a person talked, they would kick him or throw him to the sea.
-Young man who witnessed his sister being raped on board a boat from Bosasso to Yemen.
They caught my little girl and dropped her into the sea. She was three 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 three-year-old girl died. She drowned. One almost died because she swallowed a lot of water, but I rescued her and took her to the hospital in Mayfa'a where she stayed for 20 days. She is six years old.
-Somali refugee describing what happened when smugglers forced his family and other passengers to leave the boats in deep water far from shore.
Many of our people come to Yemen because of their political problems, and they suffer many more problems at the beach. Other refugees - the Somalis - they accept them and take them to the [Kharaz refugee] camp, but we are directly captured and deported to the country which we escaped from ... if we try to come to UNHCR, we are treated badly at every [police] checkpoint. Some, by going a long trip and hiding themselves along the way, arrive in Sana'a. But many are captured first.
-Ethiopian refugee living in Sana'a, Yemen.