Straining to cope with the number of Somalis arriving by boat, Yemen is seeking to end the prima facie refugee status (automatic asylum) it has been giving them for the past 20 years.
The government says some are economic migrants and should not be granted automatic refugee status, while others are militants seeking to join al-Qaeda groups to destabilize the country.
"Not all Somalis are fleeing conflict. Many are immigrants who come from safe regions such as Bosasso [port in the Puntland region of northern Somalia] in search of better economic opportunities," Essam al-Mahbashi, a subcommittee member of the National Committee for Refugee Affairs (NCRA), told IRIN.
He said the emergence of extremist groups in Somalia, such as al-Shabab, is one of the reasons why Yemen wants to scrap the prima facie refugee status policy.
"Members of these groups want to enter Yemen to help the al-Qaeda organization in its plots that target national security and stability," al-Mahbashi said.
The NCRA, which works with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), is mandated to implement the new policy when it comes into effect.
Mohammed al-Fuqmi, a rapporteur for NCRA, said the proposal for the policy change had been submitted to the Council of Ministers for approval two months ago.
"The government needs to secure international support to cover the cost of repatriating illegal immigrants, who are not eligible for refugee status, before the new policy is put into effect," he said. “The status quo necessitates changing the policy.”
He said all illegal immigrants would be returned to their countries of origin by plane “in coordination with their governments”, but did not clarify how this might work in the case of Somalia which lacks a functioning government.
Al-Mahbashi said Somali and non-Somali asylum-seekers would be treated alike under the new policy.
"Firmer internationally recognized screening procedures will be applied on each individual case to determine who deserves refugee status," he said, adding that these procedures would be applied after the completion of the current refugee registration process in several months’ time.
On 18 January the Interior Ministry announced that all unregistered refugees in Yemen must register with the authorities within two months.
Extremist groups blamed
Somali refugees in Yemen blame extremist groups back home for their miserable conditions there and in Yemen.
"They forced us to flee Somalia. And then they created problems for us in Yemen. They made it too difficult for us to get refugee status," Enab Abdullah, a 35-year-old Somali woman, told IRIN in the Yemeni capital Sanaa.
"I got my refugee ID last month from the Sanaa registration centre while my husband couldn't because he was suspected of having connections with these groups," she said. "They want to force him back to Somalia where the situation goes from bad to worse."
Patrick Duplat of NGO Refugees International (RI) said RI encouraged countries, including Yemen, to offer Somalis the broadest protection mechanisms possible given the current situation in their homeland.
However, he said Yemen’s new policy would be in line with newly issued UNHCR guidelines on Somalis that allow for such screening but call for those Somalis not granted refugee status to be afforded “complementary forms of international protection”.
"We, however, caution that a more restrictive asylum policy towards Somalis is part of a larger trend in the region with growing xenophobia, and an increasing number of arbitrary arrests and detention," he said.
UNHCR said it was too early to comment on the Yemeni government’s proposed policy change.
The government says there are about 780,000 Africans in Yemen, most of whom it says are illegal immigrants. According to UNHCR, there were about 178,000 African refugees in Yemen as of June 2010 - 168,000 of whom were Somalis. Yemen’s population is about 23 million.
Al-Mahbashi said only 10 percent of Africans arriving in Yemen passed through UNCHR-run reception centres.