A Counter-Intuitive Flight: Is Somalia Ready to Receive Refugees from Yemen?

For more than 24 years, refugees have fled instability in Somalia for the comparative safety of Yemen. Now, as indiscriminate violence grips Yemen, civilians there are packing up their lives and hoping to find safe haven in Somalia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently announced that thou-sands of refugees from Yemen are expected to make the dangerous trip across the Gulf of Aden to Somalia, and to other Horn of Africa countries like Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. Unfortunately, states in this region have a long record of poor institutional responses to refugees.

Over the years, Somali refugees have taken enormous risks to cross dangerous seas to Yemen in search of protection and better lives for their families. Now, many Yemenis face predatory networks of smugglers scattered along the shores of Yemen and Somalia. But confronted with few other options, many Yemenis will make a similar decision. They will mobilize resources and rely on the little information available to reach an unfamiliar country. Perhaps they will return to Yemen soon, but it is possible that this will turn into a long and protracted exile from home. Such is the nature of displacement. The future is uncertain, but staying put to face violence and death is the least rational option.  

The self-declared autonomous region of Somaliland is geographically situated across the Gulf of Aden from Yemen, and is expected to receive the majority of refugees from Yemen.  Officials in Somaliland are closely monitoring the arrival of refugees from Yemen, and have been in discus-sions with UNHCR. There are plans to build camps for Yemeni refugees close to the port city of Berbera. Somaliland has a long history of dealing with Ethiopian migrants and Somali IDPs.

Puntland, a semi- autonomous region in north-eastern Somalia, has also received the first arri-vals of Somali refugees fleeing Yemen. The port city of Bosaso has long served as a hub for migrants and refugees who were headed to Yemen. There are no indications of how the Puntland government plans to deal with a predicted influx.

The future is uncertain, but staying put to face violence and death is the least rational option.

In Somalia, deep political divisions, fragility of institutions, and insecurity in parts of southern Somalia will make the task of extending proper protection to thousands of Yemeni refugees and Somali returnees an arduous one. Further, ongoing insecurity in south-central Somalia threatens the protection of these refugees. Al-Shabab, an Islamist militant group, still maintains presence in the south, and sporadic violence amongst clans also erupts occasionally.

Somali policies towards refugees from Yemen (whether Yemeni nationals or returning Somali refugees) are at risk of becoming ad hoc and fragmented, with each administrative entity re-sponding in isolation from the others, and with no consultation with the federal authorities based in Mogadishu. The experience of institutional and legislation responses to internal displacement in Somalia suggest that each regional administration has dealt with the issue in its own way. For example, the federal policy on internally displaced people (IDPs), which was largely crafted by UNHCR, holds little relevance outside of the capital Mogadishu. Somaliland effectively deals with IDPs separately, informed by its own institutions and political interest. The same is true for Puntland, which has only recently completed a policy for IDPs.

Geo-political interests will make attempts to formulate streamlined, cohesive policies difficult. However, leaders from different Somali administrations should find it in their own interests to collaborate. Receiving thousands of Yemeni refugees and Somali returnees from Yemen will mean significant strains on scant resources and feeble infrastructures. It may also mean dra-matic changes in the demographics of Somalia’s newly-established regional states.

Due to these complexities, collaboration among Somali officials towards an internal “burden sharing” strategy is paramount. International actors like UNHCR should continue carrying out their protection and assistance activities, but they must also support an integrated Somali re-sponse that lay the foundation for reception of Yemeni refugees, and reintegration of Somali refugees returning from Yemen into safe areas.

Maimuna Mohamud is an independent consultant doing research on issues related to migration and displacement in the Horn of Africa and on gender and political participation in Somalia.

Photo: People fleeing airstrikes in Sanaa, Yemen on April 6, 2015. Credit: REUTERS.