Yemen, the only Arab state in the Middle East party to the UN Refugee Convention, hosted some 75,000 refugees in 2003, the largest non-Palestinian refugee population in the Gulf. The overwhelming majority were Somalis (70,000), followed by Ethiopians (2,500), Palestinians from Gaza (361), and smaller numbers of refugees from Iraq, Sudan, Syria, and elsewhere. Some 53 refugees resettled to third countries and 14 repatriated from Yemen during the year. By year's end, nearly 200 Yemenis were asylees or pending applicants in the United States, where 107 filed new claims in 2003, and fifty Yemenis voluntarily repatriated from Syria.
Precise statistics of refugees in Yemen are highly disputed. In late 2003, UNHCR adjusted its count of refugees in Yemen downward by more than 33,000 people, following the June 2003 completion of registration procedures. Several thousand more are not registered with UNHCR and live in indeterminate situations, including up to 100,000 Iraqis.
UNHCR granted prima facie refugee status to Somalis, foregoing individual refugee status determinations unless the refugees needed resettlement for protection. Accordingly, UNHCR statistics of Somali refugees in Yemen account for only those refugees who approach the reception center upon arrival. The government of Yemen estimates that the actual number is about two times that of UNHCR.
Arrivals by Sea
More than 14,000 refugees and asylum seekers arrived in 2003, including Somalis at an average of 1,000 per month. After September, however, Ethiopian arrivals increased to more than 80 percent of the new cases. Yemen has also granted prima facie refugee status to Ethiopian Navy officers and cadets who fled their country during the overthrow of the Mengistu regime around 1991 and relinquished command of their vessels to Yemeni authorities.
Yemen's coast guard stepped up its patrols in 2003, arresting and deporting about 1,200 Ethiopians and more than 500 Arab and other nationalities caught trying to enter the country illegally throughout the year. They also intercepted an additional 5,200 Somalis, admitted and transferred them to one of the country's refugee camps for assistance.
The Red Sea passage from the Horn of Africa proved to be extremely dangerous. Refugees reportedly drowned off the coast on several occasions when their boats capsized or when traffickers forced them into the sea at gunpoint. In August, traffickers sailing from Somalia forced at least 30 Somali and Ethiopian refugees to jump into the sea as the boat neared the coast of Yemen. More than ten drowned, but 18 managed to swim to shore. In February, another Somali boat carrying 130 people sank off the Yemeni coast, leaving only 84 survivors. This followed the explosion of a boat weeks earlier that forced passengers – many reported to be asylum seekers – into the sea, killing more than 80 people.
Assistance to Refugees
Most refugees in Yemen live in urban settings in one of ten cities, where they try to support themselves in the informal sectors of the country's fragile economy. UNHCR operates one main refugee camp in Yemen, housing vulnerable populations – primarily women, children, and elderly – in an isolated area 150 km from Aden. The World Food Programme provided emergency food rations to more than 30,000 beneficiaries in 2003 and reported that refugees in the camp were destitute and had few job prospects.
In July, the Solidarity Committee for Ethiopian Political Prisoners (SOCEPP), a non-governmental organization based in Berlin, appealed to UNHCR to protect Ethiopian refugees in Yemen. The organization said that UNHCR compromised the refugees by refusing to renew their identity cards, which expired at the end of 2001, closing a refugee camp near Taiz, and blocking their resettlement based on the disputed grounds that they had already integrated into Yemeni society. Local reports could not substantiate these claims, and in some cases, directly contradicted them.