The fate of Yemenis in Djibouti city

In Djibouti city, Yemenis who have fled the war in their country live in limbo. Should they remain in Djibouti, uncertain of the future, searching for ever-elusive jobs? Seek to resettle in another country? Or return to Yemen? UNHCR spoke to a group of them.

According to the International Organization for Migration and the Djiboutian government, 29,487 people of mixed nationalities arrived in Djibouti between 26 March and 27 October 2015. They included 15,761 Yemeni nationals, 11,822 transiting third country nationals and 1,904 Djiboutian returnees. In the same period UNHCR registered 5,337 refugees in Markazi camp in Obock, 5,150 of whom arrived from Yemen.

In August 2015 the UNHCR Regional Refugee Coordinator (RRC) for the Yemen situation, Ms Claire Bourgeois, visited an association that assists Yemenis who fled from their country and are living in Djibouti town. Her aim was to learn from the Yemenis about their journey to Djibouti; whether it was easy or difficult, and whether there were others planning to make the same journey. The Yemenis spoke anonymously about their hopes and disillusionment.

A 62-year-old architect and town planner from Aden told his tale. “I left Aden in June 2015 when I could no longer live there because of the war and the high unemployment. I thought that coming to Djibouti would change things for the better. I was wrong. Life has not improved. I can’t find work, I am on my own and can’t even find ways to pass time. I depend on my son in Sana’a, who sends me half of his meagre monthly salary of USD 200. I am homeless in Djibouti and would be homeless if I returned to Yemen. I live like Tarzan”.

He said that his journey from Aden to Djibouti was very difficult, and for that reason could not bring his family along. Many people wanted to leave but few could find a boat to make the perilous voyage. The other men agreed with him. The architect considers himself in transit in Djibouti and notes that it would be impossible for him to remain here or indeed return to Yemen where, he feels, his life would be in danger. He urged UNHCR to help him find asylum in another country.

Ms Bourgeois explained UNHCR’s protection services, stressing the organizations efforts to find durable solutions for refugees. She emphasized that the best solution would be for refugees to return to their country, when the conditions were favourable. The possibility of resettling them in third countries was remote.

A Yemeni man in his 30s narrated how he has been stranded in Djibouti while trying to reach Bulgaria. “My mother is Bulgarian and our whole family plans to travel to Bulgaria. We have been waiting for a long time to get visas for Bulgaria. My mother is also in Djibouti and wants to go back to Bulgaria, but not without us. The family is very concerned about her because she has high blood pressure” said the man. “There is no question of me or other family members returning to Yemen,” he added. He said that many people arrived in Djibouti through the port in the city. They remain in the city, living among relatives or on their savings. When they run out of money, they have to move to Obock and live in Markazi refugee camp, where the conditions are very harsh.

The architect, who had visited Markazi in July, when the weather conditions were particularly harsh, interjected, playing a clip he had filmed on his smartphone to prove the point. The clip showed refugee tents being battered by severe sandstorms.

Other people in the group included a journalist, whose work had put him in danger in Yemen, and a former fighter, who was in a similar situation. They felt equally trapped, with no work, no money and nowhere else to go.

The Yemenis are caught between a rock and a hard place. They either remain in Djibouti, living in difficult circumstances, with little or no prospect of finding employment. Or return to Yemen to face uncertainty and danger. As the architect put it, “many people are returning to Yemen because they would rather die there in dignity than here without dignity”.

The back-and-forth movement of people continues between Yemen and the outside world. People are fleeing from Yemen, sometimes risking their lives to do so. In Djibouti, unable to find to find work and sustain the lifestyles they were accustomed to, disillusioned Yemenis are returning to their homeland, well aware of the uncertainty and risks ahead. Other Yemenis remain in limbo, waiting and hoping to be assisted in Djibouti, or resettled in another country.

There have been reports about Yemenis returning to their country from Djibouti, some of them on flights organized and sponsored by the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the King Salman Centre. UNHCR is not involved in the repatriation because it has a very clear policy that bars returning refugees to their country of origin unless it is evidently safe to do so.