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Yemen’s Conflict Is Getting So Bad That Some Yemenis Are Fleeing to Somalia

Somalia is not exactly a safe haven, but this week it saw the arrival of the first small exodus of Yemeni refugees fleeing the worsening fighting in their own country.
Photo par Mohamed al-Sayaghi/Reuters

Somalia is not exactly considered a safe haven, but over the last few days, the Horn of Africa country has seen the arrival of the first small exodus of Yemenis who have crossed the Gulf of Aden to escape the worsening fighting in their own country.

Somalia itself remains extremely volatile and ridden by civil conflict — with recurrent attacks and outbursts of violence which, together with extreme poverty, have pushed more than 238,000 Somalis to make the opposite trip and seek safety in Yemen over the years.


Yet the situation in Yemen has become so precarious that Yemeni refugees would rather seek shelter in Somalia than remain caught in the middle of heavy fighting between government forces and Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. For over a week, the Arab country has also pounded by Saudi-led airstrikes.

For the time being, the number of people fleeing Yemen to Somalia is small. Some 32 Yemenis arrived in the port city of Berbera earlier this week, and a second boat carrying 80 more is expected to dock sometime this week. Migration officials have yet to confirm its arrival. Among the first departures, several Somalis have also left Yemen to head back home, according to a taskforce coordinated by the United Nation's agency for refugees (UNHCR).

Related: Photos Show Horrific Aftermath of Airstrike That Hit Refugee Camp in Yemen

A spokeswoman for UNHCR Somalia told VICE News that the Yemeni arrivals included elderly people and children. The groups traveled on commercial boats, and told humanitarian workers they had not brokered the trips through smugglers. Each trip reportedly lasted between 12 hours to two days, she said.

"Some of them, especially the Somalis, said that they lacked water on the trip," she added. "And the weather conditions are not very good."

Other refugees have also arrived in neighboring Djibouti, where the agency is currently looking to find areas to shelter them, she said.

Berbera is located in the semi-autonomous and relatively secure Somaliland region — but the fact that anyone would flee to Somalia is indicative of just how bad things have become in Yemen. Several civilian casualties have been reported and earlier this week, a camp for internally displaced people (IDP) was struck by Saudi-led airstrikes.


"It's very telling," Laetitia Bader, a Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher on Somalia, told VICE News about the unusual trip made by some Yemenis. "Of course, Somaliland is not south central Somalia on the security front at all, but Somaliland has its own IDP population, and it's difficult to know who the Yemeni arriving at the moment are, and whether they are going to be able to integrate easily."

HRW have reported xenophobic attacks on refugees there in the past, and Bader said it's unclear what resources and legal support Somaliland can offer to arriving Yemenis.

"The framework is not clear," she said, noting that the refugee registration process has been stalled for years. "The legal context is definitely not ideal, and also Somaliland is incredibly poor."

But as the conflict in Yemen continues to worsen, prospects for the tens of thousands of internally displaced people there, including many refugees and migrants from African countries, remain dire.

"[A] key concern among partners is the acute humanitarian crisis that may develop out of this conflict and potential increased displacement as people flee their homes within Yemen as well as to neighboring countries," Lisa Piper, Yemen director for the Danish Refugee Council, which continues to operate inside Yemen, said in a statement. "This may further constrain the humanitarian situation in the country as well as in these neighboring countries who are already dealing with extended situations of displacement."

Somali officials said this week they are working to evacuate Somalis caught in the violence in Yemen, though it is unclear if, and how, they are doing that. The Somali government's decision to throw its support behind the Yemeni government versus the Houthi rebels, also raised concerns that Somali refugees in Yemen would be targeted in retaliation, AFP reported.

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi