Dozens of Eritrean refugees are scattered across the Al-Safeyah area of Sana’a, a densely populated neighborhood estimated to have the largest number of African refugees in the city. Women sit in groups on threadbare carpets, blankets, or mats in streets corners. They are surrounded by playing children, running, shouting, smiling, and laughing; easily distracting observers from the tragic experiences they went through on their way to and through Yemen.
A group of around 200 Eritrean refugees have been living on the streets of Sana’a for months, as they themselves explain. They were arrested and sent to jail upon their crossing of the red sea and the Yemeni coastal border.
According to Omar Abu Bakr, who acts as the group’s representative, he and the other refugees have spent between three and twenty months in the central prison of Hodeida governorate.
Not every Eritrean who arrives in Yemen gets imprisoned, explains Abdullah Ali Al-Zurka, the director of the Deportation Department in Sana’a. It is only those who do not obtain official refugee status and count as “illegal immigrants” who face jail time. “As soon as they are officially acknowledged as refugees they are freed from prison.”
Surprisingly, refugees appear quite understanding of their imprisonment, explaining that the Yemeni government was rightfully concerned about Yemen’s security and had to preserve its country from “human trafficking.”
The refugees that are living in Sana’a’s streets and are represented by Abu Bakr have all undergone imprisonment before they were freed by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
According to Al-Zurka, the UNHCR office suggested the movement of all freed refugees to Sana'a, where it is easier to process their legal documents and officially ratify their refugee status.
The Eritrean group was housed in hotels located in the Al-Safeyah neighborhood for three months before receiving documents identifying them as refugees. Once their legal status was clarified, UNHCR provided little further assistance, simply recommending they integrate with local groups to build themselves a living in Sana’a.
Idris Ahmed, a fifty-year-old fisherman and a refugee within the group, came to Yemen expecting to receive shelter, lodging, or resettlement in a third country by the Yemeni government or the UNHCR.
“None of that happened… instead we were left abandoned on the streets,” said Ahmed.
Neither Ahmed nor any of the other refugees were prepared for what awaited them in Yemen.
Driven by harships in their home country, not much thought was given to the future in Yemen, which was mainly chosen as a destination because of its proximity. Everything seemed better than home. “We decided to go to Yemen in order to seek humanitarian asylum there because it was the easiest way for us, via the sea, only a 72-hours trip,” Ahmed recalls.
“We never heard of a good or a bad situation in Yemen. All we did was flee,” explains another refugee, Helen Berhey.
Escaping the Eritrean military
Ahmed, who ran away from the tyranny of his government, explains that he had been forced to join the military regardless of his old age.
Fatima Mohammed, an Eritrean housewife, left her country with her husband, a soldier, for a similar reason, seeking a better life and future. “As a soldier my husband could not provide me and the kids with a life worth living. He sometimes stayed away from home for more than a year, or a year and a half,” she explains.
Holding one of her children in her arms, she adds, “once we arrived in Yemen we spent six months in jail. It was a very tough experience.”
The female refugees weren’t all housewives before they fled Eritrea—a couple of women were part of the Eritrean military as well.
“In Eritrea, military service is mandatory after the 11th grade for all citizens aged between sixteen and fifty. No one can apply for a job or proceed with their education unless they join the military first,” said Berhey, a female soldier who has been in the military for three years before she fled Eritrea with her two brothers, also soldiers.
Following military service, all Eritrean citizens, except for the elderly, must carry an official document with them at all times, stating that he or she completed military service. “Sometimes the military forces arrest people who are walking on the street without these papers. They also search houses for those who did not join the military to arrest them and forcefully send them to the military training base,” said Maryam Qermay, another female soldier who fled her life in Eritrea after having served in the Eritrean military since 2008.
Speaking about her experiences, she says, “I wanted to continue my education and become a secretary. That is why I initially joined the military.”
According to Qermay, the treatment she experienced during her military service was harsh.
“Our training started at 3 AM and lasted until 6 PM every day. We were beaten with a baton by our supervisors whenever we failed to meet their commands or were late,” said Qermay.
“Some people died during their military service due to heart diseases due to insufficient medical care,” she added, describing the military service as “slavery.”
Thousands of Eritreans flee their country each year to avoid the country’s harsh military service.
Although Eritrea’s “national service” is officially limited to 18 months, in practice the government prolongs service indefinitely. According to a 2014 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, conscripts are poorly fed, receive inadequate medical care, and earn less than US$30 per month—a sum that is insufficient to provide sustenance for a family.
Children as young as 15 are conscripted into military service, where they are often poorly treated and sometimes face violence, the HRW report reads. Frequently, conscripts are exploited as cheap labor, being forced to work on reconstruction projects for example, such as road building, living in vast barracks in the desert, and not being allowed to leave the work site.
Lacking health services, freedom of expression and religion
Eritrea’s compulsory military service is not the only reason that prompts Eritreans to leave their country. A lack of health services and the absence of freedom of expression and religion were also put forth by Eritrean refugees in Yemen as reasons driving escape.
A 2014 Human Rights Watch report claimed that since 2002, the Eritrean government has jailed and physically abused citizens for practicing religions other than Sunni Islam, Ethiopian Orthodox, Catholicism, and Lutheranism, which are the four government-controlled and officially recognized religions.
Accordingly, refugees like Qermay complain they have faced severe discrimination due to their religious identity.
Being a protestant and non-Lutheran Christian, Qermay explains that “those who are protestant Christians, like me, face difficulties and racism from the government.” Once police forces broke into the church of her Protestant community, interrupted their prayer and imprisoned the worshipers, including old people, women, and children.
“We were released later and asked in a threatening tone to never have our [Protestant] prayers again,” said Qermay.
Living under difficult conditions in Yemen
“We are facing really bad conditions and circumstances here,” said Abu Bakr, referring to his current life in Yemen. “Our life is now based on charities and people's mercy,” which is neither a permanent nor a sustainable source of income.
Feeding themselves and their family members, however, is not the only concern of Eritrean refugees living on the streets in Yemen; weather, security concerns, and health issues constitute serious challenges as well.
“Rainy days wet all our carpets and the pieces of cartoons we sit on. We try to hide from the rain with our children, fearing they will get sick. Once we were helped by this young man owning a toy shop, in which we could stay during the rain,” said Mohammed.
Refugees’ security concerns also matter, in a country which is widely acknowledged to find itself facing a very difficult security situation.
8 According to Qermay, “there are days when we can't sleep out of fear, hearing very close gunfire.” Refugees, she says, find themselves in a very dangerous situation, lacking any protection. “All we can do is turn to human rights organizations and ask for their help.”
Several of the problems refugees are facing in Yemen could be solved by finding them a proper shelter. I fact, living in a safe place with food and adequate services constitutes a key demand among homeless Eritrean refugees in Sana’a.
Sanaa Mohammed, the chairwoman of the Eritrean community leaders, said that the refugees represented by Abu Bakr demanded to be moved to a camp during the meetings with the UNHCR.
“However, they never submitted the documents that are required to be moved to the camps,” she said.
In her opinion, refugees were not placed in camps because they did not know they had to submit a written request. Another possible reason, she assumes, might be that “camps are already fully packed.”
Mohammed’s presumption is contradicted by Jamal Al-Ju'bi, the protection official at the UNHCR. “Camps exist and they can file request to us, moving to those camps anytime,” says Al-Ju’bi, referring to UNHCR refugee camps in Lahj, Taiz, and Raima governorates. He problematizes the “camp solution”, however, saying, “we took them out of prison where they had to live under bad conditions. We don't want the camp to become another prison.”
Supporting his argument, Al-Ju'bi refers to the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was signed by Yemen, and requires each contracting state to accord the right to refugees “to choose their place of residence and to move freely within its territory.”
Instead of emphasizing the camp solution, the UNHCR is trying to integrate Eritrean refugees into Yemeni society. “We provided and linked them to community leaders who help them find housing and jobs, and who report their needs regarding education, health, legal matters...etc.,” said Al-Ju'bi.
So-called “community leaders” are selected by refugees and confirmed by the UNHCR to act as mediators between the two parties.
Al-Ju'bi explains that the UNHCR office can only assist Eritrean refugees in finding decent housing and providing them with essential services, including health services, psychological consultancy, legal help, or education in public schools. Using their Letter of Recognition for Refugee Status, Eritrean children can actually enroll in public school. While the government grants refugees access to education, it refuses to offer health services, denying them any access to public hospitals. Instead, Eritrean refugees must rely on health centers that operate in coordination with the UNHCR and provide them with free health services.
With very little government funding allocated to refugees, the UNHCR and other international organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organization of Migration, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), or Save the Children, constitute crucial players in the support of refugees in Yemen.
In May, Al-Ju'bi reported that around 40 refugees, who were released from prison, have been successfully integrated in society, and that a small number have managed to find jobs and housing.
More than two months later, Mohammed explained that “over 80% of the Eritrean group of refugees that had to live on the streets, found shelter. They got jobs, and others were enrolled in the vocational training that the UNHCR office provides.”
These figures are problematic, as 20 percent of all cases remain unresolved. With high unemployment rates in the country and over 250 thousands registered refugees, the full integration of Eritreans into Yemeni society is a difficult task.
In light of the dire situation Eritrean refugees are facing in Yemen, it seems little surprising that many of them wish to leave the country as soon as possible, trying their luck elsewhere.
Al-Zurka and Al-Ju'bi agree that most Eritrean refugees wish to resettle to a third country,” saying that “Yemen seems to be a first destination for them, a transit, before heading to their aimed final destination, Europe. They only came here to get resettled.”