When Ahmed al-Rifaaiy first arrived in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, he hoped for a better life and future. Six years on, as one of a string of Iraqi barbers along Haddah Street, the city’s bustling commercial centre, his dreams remain much the same.
“The Yemeni people are good people and have welcomed us to their country,” the 30-year-old, who hopes one day to move to Europe, said, snipping away at a customer’s hair - and shying away from any notion that he was a refugee.
“I’m satisfied with my life here,” al-Rifaaiy said, conceding at the same time, however, that life for Iraqi nationals in Yemen, many of whom have only recently arrived in the country, was becoming more difficult.
“It’s OK because I’ve been here for a while. But for those trying to come now it’s harder,” he said.
Visas now required
Such difficulties stem largely from a recent government decision requiring all Iraqis entering the country to have a visa - a major shift in policy for Yemen which earlier had allowed all Arab nationals to enter without a visa.
Yet despite this, the estimated 70,000 Iraqis in Yemen, the vast majority of whom are highly educated and skilled, fare much better than those in Jordan and Syria.
Although the Yemeni authorities are concerned about the number of Iraqi refugees in the country, they have shown a degree of understanding of their plight, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
“For the most part they are looked upon as Arab nationals in the country, some of whom have successfully integrated into Yemeni society,” Samer Haddadin, a senior protection officer for the UNHCR in Sanaa, told IRIN.
Photo: David Swanson/IRIN
|Shatha Salh, 45, an English teacher from Baghdad, arrived in Yemen a year ago following death threats on her family|
Since the first arrivals of Iraqi refugees in the country during the Iran-Iraq war, the Yemeni authorities applied to them the principles of Arab unity. That is, it regarded them as residents with the right to work, education and social benefits on the basis of their being Arabs.
“Theoretically, Iraqis could claim asylum in Yemen,” Geraldine Chatelard, a prominent expert on Iraqi refugees at the Oriental Institute in Jordan, told IRIN. “But they opt not to because they get better legal stability and rights as Arab aliens.”
However, for Shatha Salh, an English teacher at Sanaa’s Royal Institute, the focus of her attention is the plight of her family and its future.
Arriving from Baghdad one year earlier, after her husband, a former army officer under Saddam Hussein, began receiving death threats, she worries about her family.
“We came here to escape the violence in Iraq,” the 45-year-old mother-of-three said. “It’s better here than being in Syria or Jordan, but still we face many problems.”
Iraqis not registering with UNHCR
However, most Iraqis in the country, including Shatha, have refrained from registering with the UNHCR - opting instead to find their own way. Only 2,926 are registered as refugees with the UN refugee agency.
“Why do I need to register with the UNHCR?” another Iraqi, who has a successful business in Sanaa, asked.
The Yemeni government grants refugee status to all Somalis on a prima facie basis, whereas asylum seekers from other nationalities - totaling close to 5,000 and including Iraqis - are obliged to go through full-fledged refugee status determination by the UNHCR.
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