Somali refugees protest perceived injustices

An ongoing sit-in by hundreds of Somali refugees demanding better living conditions or resettlement in a third country in the Yemeni capital, Sana, turned into a hunger strike on 24 November.

“Since the beginning of the hunger strike, two children have died,” said Abdul Azeez Zeyad, chairman of the Yemeni-Somali Brotherhood Association (YSBA).

Zeyad added that strikers were continuing to refuse food, despite the health risks, in protest to what they see as violations of their rights by the Sana’a offices of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

"They say they’re ready to die, one by one, if the UNHCR doesn’t give them their rights," added Zeyad.

One of the refugees’ chief demands is that their national identity cards, which allow them to work and send their children to school, be renewed.

Many of the refugees complain that, once IDs expire, they are unable to exercise their legal rights as legal residents.

"Our children can’t go to school and we can’t work without them,” said Abdullah Adam, a refugee in Yemen for 15 years. “We want the UNHCR to renew our cards.”

Yemen issues Somali refugees with ID cards – co-signed by UNHCR – that legalise their stay, permit freedom of movement and facilitate access to employment and education.

"We also want the Yemeni government to help us go to a third country where we can find better standards of living," Adam added.

In response, the UNHCR announced on Thursday that it had agreed with the Yemeni government to immediately open six permanent registration centres nationwide, including one in the capital, for the issuance and renewal of identity cards.

The Sana'a-based branch of the refugee agency has also stated that it already has a policy of helping some Somali refugees with special circumstances seek refuge third countries.

"Resettlement is one of three durable solutions we offer, which include voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement," explained Firas Kayal, associate protection officer at the Sana'a branch of the UNCHR.

He added that the agency, in cooperation with the governments of Denmark, Britain and Holland, had drawn up a plan aimed at better addressing the issue of Somali refugees in Yemen and other countries.

Along with these two administrative demands, striking refugees also insist on better access to food, clothing, housing and health care.

"I'm living here, with two children, without assistance from any one,” said Ramal, who has sat in front of the UNCHR office, along with 800 others, since mid-November. “I have no house, no money and no job. I can’t even go back to Somalia."

Somali citizens arriving in Yemen are automatically granted refugee status by the government. As of the end of October, there were some 79,000 refugees registered with UNHCR in Yemen, more than 68,000 of them from Somalia.

Most Somalis live in urban areas, with roughly 7,500 staying at the Kharaz refugee camp in the country’s south.