Yemen: In the grip of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world
Since war erupted in Yemen in March 2015 between the internationally recognised government supported by the Saudi led coalition on one side, and the Houthi rebels on the other, Yemeni civilians have been caught in the middle. According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), there are 2 million internally displaced people in Yemen, and a total of 20 million are in need of humanitarian assistance - that’s 88% of the population. According to the Borgen Project, a US-based organisation tasked with ending extreme poverty, Yemeni refugees are unable to seek refuge in Europe and the US because of the associated travel costs. 190,352 people have fled Yemen to neighbouring countries and the Horn of Africa sub-region, regardless of the insecurities and economic hardship there. Yemen, as described by UNHCR, is “in the grip of the largest humanitarian catastrophe in the world”. There are huge gaps in funding a UNHCR response, which puts the lives of civilians in Yemen at risk.
Sudan, currently itself impacted hugely by numerous internal conflicts and the situation in neighboring countries, has welcomed arrivals from Yemen. Its visa upon arrival programme for Yemeni nationals arriving from Yemen has encouraged many to seek refuge in the capital Khartoum. Sudan has received 7,398 individuals from Yemen since war erupted in 2015 as stated by UNHCR, but the coordination committee for Yemen refugees in Sudan believes the real number has already exceeded 15,000.
7Dnews spoke to Yemeni refugees in Khartoum about life in Sudan and how they are managing in a new country that is hit by economic hardship, and which many of its own citizens are trying to leave.
Seeking a place safer than our country
Abdel- Razak Al Azazi is a journalist by profession who decided to flee Yemen in 2015. He left for Sudan because of its accessibility and the fact that his fiancé is Sudanese and and was living in Sudan at the time. Al Azazi reported on the condition of injured Yemeni soldiers who were receiving medical care in Sudan. His reports were embarrassing for the embassy of Yemen in Khartoum. The charge d’affaires at Yemen’s embassy in Khartoum summoned him to his office and accused him of sympathising with Houthi rebels and threatened to forcibly return him to Yemen. Al Azazi fled to Kuwait, leaving behind his wife, now six months pregnant. A week after he left armed men broke into his apartment, threatened his wife and robbed them of everything.
Fuad Alsamaai is an active member of the Yemeni refugee community in Khartoum, who also fled from Yemen to Sudan in September 2015. He traveled with his family, a wife and three daughters, for ten days by land from Sanaa to Jeddah, before taking the plane to Khartoum. They went through Maareb and Alwadeia, on a road that is reportedly becoming very dangerous because of organized crime gangs.
Alsamaai does not feel safe in Khartoum either. He received online threats from Houthi rebel-affiliated accounts. These threatening messages stated that they could harm him in Khartoum. He has reported these incidents to the UNHCR office in Khartoum and to the Yemen embassy. Both have told him that they are unable to protect him.
Video 1: Taiz still under attack after three years
“Being welcomed as brothers and sisters should have never affected our refugee status” said a Yemen refugee in Sudan.
Yemeni nationals in Sudan are welcomed as brothers and sisters - that’s how Sudanese officials have described it, but this has implications for recognizing them officially as refugees.
Fuad Alsamaai, who speaks for the coordinating committee of Yemeni refugees in Sudan, said, “We have issues with registering as refugees in the UNHCR office in Khartoum. We have not been given refugee cards. The registration is open only two days a week and we are not granted the aid and support that refugees in Sudan from other countries receive. We feel discriminated against by UNHCR. The decision to grant us the same rights as Sudanese nationals is meant to facilitate our access to services but it should never have affected our refugee status.”
UNHCR doors closed
Not being given a refugee card and not being granted refugee status, refugees from Yemen complained about the lack of aid they receive from UNHCR. “Other refugees in Sudan like Eritreans and South Sudanese are better treated than Yemenis. We receive a monetary allowance for only three months and it is equivalent to USD$ 50 ( SDG 1200). Yemeni refugees from other countries like Ethiopia and Egypt receive USD$ 100 a month and an additional amount according to the number of people in the household, and we were not given any food items,” said Alsamaai.
According to Alsamaai, Yemen refugees in Khartoum organised a stand in front of the UNHCR premises demanding aid and full recognition as refugees. A senior officer at the UNHCR came to speak with them and asked them to return a few days later to meet with a higher-ranking official in the agency. It had taken them weeks just to meet with the same officer who again promised that their allowance and aid would be discussed later and threatened to call the Sudanese Security Service if they continued to organise any forms of public protest. Since then, there has been no news.
Struggling with housing, access to health, and education, is no different to the hardships faced by the majority of Sudanese people
Because of the legal status given to Yemeni refugees in Sudan, they are not accommodated in refugee camps and have to find their own place to live. Most either rent flats in Khartoum or share houses with other Yemeni nationals and refugees. Access to health is facilitated by UNHCR, but it seems to be difficult to access for the people we spoke to.
“First if a Yemeni refugee fell sick, they needed a letter from the UNHCR to visit the Almanar organisation, who would process a referral to the hospital. A problem arises when someone requires medical assistance after working hours or during public holidays. The UNHCR and Almanar offices are closed and people have to wait until the next working day.”
Recently Yemeni nationals in Sudan were granted basic health insurance, which many found insufficient as it does not fully cover many conditions or situations, and is no different from the average Sudanese citizen’s coverage. The health insurance system in Sudan was established in 1997 and is still far from being universal, with issues of accessibility and affordability of premium services a problem for a vast majority of Sudanese citizens - that’s according to a study published by SAGE Open Med journal.
The coordinating committee of Yemeni refugees in Sudan said Yemeni students are welcome to enroll in public schools, but face similar struggles to that of Sudanese nationals. Public schools are few, located far from many residential areas, and are overcrowded. Some of the Sudanese universities accept the enrollment of Yemeni students in undergraduate programs, but there are no students enrolled in a postgraduate program.
Yet many Yemeni refugees drop out of school because of the economic hardship as they are given only SDG 1,000 allowance to support their education for a whole academic year.
Informal sector accommodates some of the Yemen refugees, but job protection and income are minimal.
“I was a doctor in Yemen, I worked in hospitals. I used to work with the government in treating war injuries. When I failed to register as a refugee I started looking for jobs, so I received training on car mechanics for a while then I found a job at a research centre and things improved. I hope things get better and I’ll able to work in the medical field again,” said Alsamaai.
The Sudanese Medical Council which regulates the practice of medicine in Sudan and registers physicians allows only Sudanese nationals to register and work as practicing doctors.
Displacement has resulted in many Yemeni refugees losing their means of livelihood. With the strained economy in Sudan and legal barriers, they are left with few options to earn a living. They are working in an informal sector through selling Bakhoor and Yemeni food, but the yield is low and there is no protection in terms of social security or work environment.
“Some are relying on charity because they could not afford to live, but it is still better than living in war,” said Alsamaai.
UNHCR in partnership with the Sanad organization have enrolled some of the Yemeni refugees in vocational training, project management, and finance training. The trainees develop projects and 25 Individuals have been selected to receive small grants. The grants were as small as SDG 20,000 and three amongst them received SDG 50,000. Individuals who received vocational training were however left without the necessary equipment, which they could not afford to buy and therefore were left out of the job market. Alsamaai said,“It is a good effort but needs to be evaluated and scaled-up.”
Ongoing economic crisis in Sudan is impacting us too
Sudan is witnessing a severe economic crisis. The inflation rate almost doubled between 2016 and 2017 and reached 52.4% in January 2018.
“We have been impacted by the economic crisis that hit Sudan in the past two years. House rentals and prices of goods skyrocketed. In order to maintain a dignified living, we sold our belongings in Yemen. My wife has also started an informal business of selling Bakhour. We are doing our best to keep our daughters in schools and we have no other option of surviving,” said Alsamaai.
Extreme poverty is alarming and can have devastating impacts
The coordinating committee of Yemeni refugees in Sudan is very concerned with the living conditions of the Yemeni refugees in Sudan. Many are living in extreme poverty and turn to begging, gathering around mosques and in streets asking people for donations.
Alsamaai said, “Recently we have noticed that there are many Yemeni beggars. We have fears that those extremely poor will be recruited by terrorist groups. If this happens it will affect the security and safety of people in Sudan and the reputation of Yemeni refugees as a whole. When people are in desperate need of a living they become an easy target for terrorist groups, they can be recruited by them to work inside or outside Sudan”.
The coordinating committee has already raised this concern with the Yemeni ambassador in Sudan, and is hoping to find practical solutions in the short term that will grant Yemenis an improved life in Sudan.
Sudan a transit station
Economic hardship in Sudan and the lack of support and recognition of Yemeni citizens as refugees have motivated some Yemeni refugees to find their way into Egypt, Ethiopia, and Turkey via Iran. Last year, Egypt applied a visa policy to Yemeni nationals between the ages of 18- 50. Yemeni refugees in Sudan find it easier to get a visa to Egypt than to get a tourist visa to Ethiopia for example.
Human smuggling and trafficking networks are active in Sudan. Eritrean refugees are using smugglers to get to Europe through Libya and Egypt. However, this does not seem to be an option for Yemeni refugees because of its high costs and serious risks.
There are people who fled to Turkey through Iran. Yemeni nationals are allowed to enter Iran with a visa upon arrival, while some have asked smugglers to take them on to Turkey. One of the smuggled Yemeni refugees was caught by Turkish authorities before he could reach the UNHCR office; they returned him to Sudan.
A spokesperson of the UNHCR office in Khartoum responded to 7Dnews enquiries about the legal status of Yemeni refugees in Sudan, the assistance provided to them and accessibility to UNHCR - and their response to the protest in 2016. He said:
“The Yemenis have from day one been treated as “brothers and sisters” or refugees falling under the Arab/Islamic notions of asylum. The major advantage is that they are exempted from the encampment policy which generally applies to all refugees in the Sudan and so they can live wherever they want and move about freely, as well as access certain services just like Sudanese nationals, including health and employment. Yemeni nationals who arrived in Sudan after March 2015 are considered as refugees by UNHCR. This status is granted on a group or prima facie basis because of the objective circumstances that are happening in Yemen due to the ongoing civil strife.”
The Refugees Law in Sudan 1974 limits the movement of refugees and asylum seekers to refugees camps and deprives them of the right to work.
The UNHCR spokesperson in Khartoum elaborated on the kind of assistance offered to Yemeni refugees in Sudan, “On the basis of need, they get assistance with primary and secondary education; financial support for accommodation and other basic needs for time-bound periods as well as health insurance with the National Health Insurance Fund. Emergency financial assistance is also provided in exceptional circumstances such as loss of family members or destruction of property. Also offered is psychosocial referral as well as legal and administrative support.”
On issues of accessibility and the treatment of Yemeni refugees by UNHCR, he commented: “The designation of specific days for seeing specific refugee nationalities is due to the fact that there are over 100,000 refugees of all nationalities in the urban environment and all have a need to see UNHCR. This is a practical arrangement.
UNHCR is dependent on donor funding and the levels of funding available are different in each country. UNHCR provides assistance to the most vulnerable refugees based on the available resources.
UNHCR is committed to communication with refugees and holds regular meetings with community members and leaders of all nationalities. In addition, all refugees have access to UNHCR’s reception and counselling services to discuss their individual cases.
At the same time, in assisting refugees, UNHCR must also safeguard the physical safety of its staff and property. In the event that refugees stage violent demonstrations, indeed, the office would call upon the host authorities to intervene to restore law and order.”
A funding update for UNHCR in Sudan published in February 2018 identifies the total gap in funding as USD$ 246.8 million of which the funding gap for Yemen is USD$4.8 million - 100% of the required budget.