Asylum and displacement represent one of ways in which conflict and politics affect education. For those fleeing war, protection and safety may seem to take priority to education. However in situations of protracted conflict and displacement, such as in the horn of Africa, refugees may find themselves in need of more than just a place to stay; they also require basic services such as healthcare, education, and secure economic conditions and livelihoods opportunities. Yemen has been accepting Somali refugees for over twenty years on a prima facie basis and while the government has been accepting of the large numbers of people who arrive on its shores, it has not done much else in terms of providing the social services which refugees require.  The purpose of this paper is to examine and arrange into a coherent form the narratives of refugees in Yemen and various stakeholders in order to further inform urban refugee policies in Yemen or another context. This paper investigates why the Yemeni government accepts refugees under the guise of hospitality, but then enforces unequal treatment and discrimination of refugees.  Furthermore, what is the potential of integration efforts if the government is unwilling to integrate refugees? Through an analysis of media sources and a framework which draws on The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR’s) urban refugee and durable solutions policies, this paper will show the conflictual nature of the policies of the Yemeni government in regards to refugees.

Background: Yemen’s Refugee Policy

Yemen is located directly across the sea from the horn of Africa and has a history of exchange with countries such as Somalia, Ethiopia, Dijbouti, Eritrea, and Sudan. Current unrest and/or political or ethnic discrimination are reasons why refugees and migrants cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, hoping for a better life in Yemen or to travel onward to a third country. An estimated 200,000-250,000 refugees live in Yemen, with the actual number likely much higher but hard to determine because many refugees do not register with UNHCR (Duplat & Younes, 2008, p. 1). The majority of refugees originate in war-torn Somalia and enjoy prima facie refugee status in Yemen. Somalia is a member of the Arab league and a majority-Muslim country, and Yemen highlights that fact that it accepts fellow Muslims in need while the wealthier gulf countries refuse them (Morris, 2010, p. 36). Refugees and asylum-seekers also come from Ethiopia, a multi-ethnic and diverse country with a history of all three Abrahamic religions and a Christian majority. Ethiopian refugees, unlike Somali refugees, must apply for refugee status from the UNHCR. Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula which is a signatory to the 1951 convention and the 1967 protocol (UNHCR, 2011a). The cornerstone of the 1951 convention is agreement to the non-refoulement of refugees, in the case that the return to their origin countries would place refugees in danger (UNHCR, 2011b, p. 6). Despite Yemen being party to the 1951 convention, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has reported abuses and refoulement of refugees by the Yemeni government, especially in the case of refugees originating in countries other than Somalia (HRW, 2009).

Conceptual Framework: UNHCR Policy on Urban Refugees

Urban refugees are located in a difficult position because they do not enjoy the full rights of citizens; however they have less support and protection compared with refugees residing in camps. The UNHCR (2009) policy on urban refugees states that refugees should have the following rights, among others:

  1. are able to gain legal and secure residency rights and are provided with documentation
  2. have access to public and private services such as healthcare and education
  3. enjoy harmonious relationships with the host population, other refugees and migrant communities
  4. are able to benefit from the solutions of voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement (UNHCR, 2009, p. 5).

These rights seem straightforward, but when placed in context many difficulties and contradictions arise between the needs of different stakeholders, including the local government, UNHCR, and the refugees themselves. In situations of long-term conflict and displacement, such as is the case of the Somali conflict, these issues are exacerbated.

One contradictory issue is that of integration, one of UNHCR’s three durable solutions. Local integration means that refugees “who are unable to repatriate and are willing to integrate locally, will find a solution to their plight in their country of asylum” (UNHCR, 2003, p. 24). Furthermore, “central to the success of this strategy is the attitude of the host government and the local authorities as well as the commitment on the part of the donor community to provide additional assistance (UNHCR, 2003, p. 6). Local integration has been identified as one of the solutions for refugees in Yemen, as resettlement is only available for very small numbers of refugees and repatriation is not an option as the conflict in the horn of Africa is ongoing. An article from Refugees International (2009) argued for the local integration of refugees as a solution.

Last year, UNHCR resettled fewer than 50 refugees from Yemen. Given the state of the country, return to Somalia is not a viable proposition. The only available durable solu­tion for Somali refugees in Yemen is local integration, es­pecially since they are allowed to work in the country. Yet until now, UNHCR’s policies have put the emphasis on camp settlement rather than creative urban livelihood projects. It is essential that UNHCR and other UN agen­cies reconsider their approach and address assistance needs in urban environments (Duplat & Younes, 2009, p. 2).

The main refugee camp in Yemen is Al-Kharaz, located on the Arab Sea coast. It is home to only about 10,000 refugees and does not have enough capacity for the estimated 250,000 refugees living in Yemen, making local integration a necessity.

Examining the issue of refugees in Yemen in comparison to refugee policies of other states in the region will broaden the analysis and help to place it in context. Iraqi refugees in Syria and Jordan were also considered prima facie refugees, meaning they received automatic refugee status without registering with the UNHCR.

Iraqis in Jordan and Syria are beneficiaries of two conflicting policies, one is the tradition of Arab brotherhood which constitutes a political and moral imperative to provide refuge; the other is a determination on the part of both governments not to integrate the Iraqis or acknowledge their permanency (Fagen, 2007, p. 1).

Therein lies the conflict between UNHCR’s mandate to integrate refugees and the host country government’s desire to not integrate refugees or give them permanent status. I would argue that the Yemeni government takes on a similar approach to accepting Somali refugees under the cultural or Islamic principle of hospitality, however cannot commit to actually integrating the refugees on a complete level. Few countries in the region are party to the 1951 convention and a historical issue related to the Palestinians refugees who have been refugees for three generations likely influences some governments’ willingness to classify another people as refugees (Fagen, 2007, p. 2)

Integration into the host population involves issues of education, health, livelihoods, and social well-being, as mentioned in the UNHCR (2009) urban refugee policy. The UNHCR (1994) guidelines on refugee children outline the policies for educating refugee children and their right to education in the host country.  Education and livelihoods development are seen as some of the tools which not only improve the status of refugees, but also may lessen tensions between the host population and refugee population. However, development is inherently conflictual (Bush & Saltarelli, 2000; Barnet & Weiss, 2008), and there is evidence that the integration efforts established by international agencies actually represent policies in conflict with the implementation of government policies regarding refugees.


I originally had the intent to examine the discourse surrounding refugees in Yemen from multiple viewpoints, specifically (1) Yemeni news and media, (2) origin country news and media and (3) development and international media and output. A search of “refugees in Yemen” brings up sources from development agencies such as UNHCR and Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) and also the Yemeni English language newspaper Yemen Observer. No origin country sources are retrieved on the first search. In order to find news outlets based in Somalia or Ethiopia, I searched first for “Somali news” and “Ethiopian news” and then looked through news articles to find information on refugees in Yemen. The themes which were prominent throughout all the articles I retrieved were a journey/displacement narrative, violence and abuse of refugees, Yemen as a poor destination for refugees because of it unrest and economic insecurity, and education and livelihoods development to aid the integration of refugees.

Overall, it was fairly easy to find international sources and Yemeni sources on the topic of refugees in Yemen; however it was not easy to find information produced by origin countries. Those articles which did appear in Somali and Ethiopian news were oftentimes reposts of UN or other foreign agency reports and did not present the critical local angle to the issue that I was looking for. Some of the reasons for this could be that (1) origin countries do not have a large base of knowledge about these issues because they are happening mainly in Yemen (2) for political reasons, they do not wish to report about refugees, perhaps because of ethnic or political divisions (3) maybe this issue is not a pressing or important issue for those in the origin country. Although it was easy to locate English news articles about refugees in Yemen, it was difficult to find scholarly articles about refugees, perhaps a sign that there has not been much international interest in this displacement compared to other refugee situations.


Current TV’s (2009) documentary series “Vanguard” tells the story of Somali refugees’ journey to Yemen across the Gulf of Aden. Narrated by correspondents Christof Putzel and Kaj Larsen, the documentary is aimed at western mainstream audiences and plays up the dramatic and dangerous aspects of the journey. This documentary does a good job of putting this story in the news and making it accessible, however, its positioning for a western audience also makes the people’s stories consumable and objectified. It documents Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF’s) reception of a group of recently arrived refugees on the Yemeni coast. The refugees are forced to jump out of the boat offshore because the smugglers fear interception from the Yemeni authorities. Many refugees do not survive the journey and the documentary shows a beach littered with dead bodies washed ashore. This issue begs the question if refugees are welcome in Yemen, why does the government implement such a policy meant to crack down on smugglers but which actually puts the lives of refugees at risk? Surely, there could be some way to legally regulate the flow of refugees and migrants across the Gulf of Aden in order to reduce the rapes, assaults, and deaths which occur during the journey.

Once in Yemen, refugees face other problems, including economic insecurity and a weakly-functioning Yemeni state. While Somalia is number one on Foreign Policy’s 2011 failed state index, Yemen is not far behind at number thirteen, and Ethiopia is at number twenty (Dickinson, 2011). Ongoing repercussions from the Arab Spring and the unseating of the president in early 2012 left the country in a state of transition and uncertainty. Many refugees complain of the dire conditions in Yemen, rooted in high unemployment.

…Somalis…are fleeing one basket case country for what is increasingly another. "Yemen isn't a state — it's never been a fully functioning state in terms of a central government that actually provides services to its people," says one foreign aid official who wished to remain anonymous due the sensitivity of his job. For that reason, the residents of Bassatine say they're forced to rely on the generosity of community members and local NGOs to make ends meet; the government — though relatively welcoming, they say — simply can't help them. "We thought that Yemen would be better than Somalia. But it's not," says Sofia Abdel Samat, 20, who lost her younger sister to the sea when the two tried to make the journey less than a month ago. "There is no work here, there is nothing" (Hauslohner, 2010).

Other refugees say that although the situation in Yemen isn’t great, it’s better than Somalia.

"They leave Somalia because of war and money troubles," says Abdel Kadir Hassan, a Somali community leader in Bassatine, who left Mogidishu in 1995 with 16 members of his family. "There is a government here in Yemen; in Somalia there is no government. We can have our farms and get what we need in our country, but there is no government" (Hauslohner, 2010).

The fact that so many refugees continue to make the dangerous journey despite its risks and low rewards makes the point that either the situation in the horn of Africa must be dire, or perhaps refugees are not aware of just how difficult the circumstances in Yemen must be. The Yemeni government has agreed to accept refugees but yet is incapable of maintaining stable economic conditions and government services for refugees, in addition to many of its own citizens.

Refugees may be poorly treated because of their low social and economic status, different language and culture, or prejudice because of their skin color. An interview with one Yemeni shows he does not have a good opinion of refugees. “Definitely, they bear diseases which damages society. Refugees create a bad situation for the country and its economy. This affects young people the most (Yemeni as quoted in IRIN Films, 2007). An interview with a Yemeni NGO worker explained how refugees generally face discrimination and low social status. “In Yemeni cities, they are badly treated. Compared to Yemenis, they work in low paid jobs, polishing shoes, washing cars. They are discriminated against because of their skin colour” (Yemeni NGO worker as cited in IRIN Films, 2007). In the same video, Yemen’s foreign minister, Abu Bakr Al-Qirbi, is interviewed and points out that while refugees face difficulties obtaining adequate health and education services, they are in no worse of a position than Yemeni citizens, who the government also has difficulty providing for. It appears that the government is in denial about the discrimination which refugees face from the Yemeni people. One reason for discrimination might be that refugees increase the perceived competition for the few resources provided by the government and create economic strain, as mentioned in the first interview.

Another criticism of the Yemeni Government’s refugee policy is the discrepancy between the treatment of Somali refugees and non-Somali refugees. While Somali refugees enjoy automatic refugee status and are not required to register with the UNHCR, refugees from other countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia face a much different reception. As mentioned previously, Yemen’s status as a signatory to the 1951 convention obligates it to the non-refoulement of any refugee seeking relief on its shores. Ethiopian refugees are the second largest in number in Yemen after the Somali refugees and they most often flee political or ethnic discrimination in their home country. A Human Rights Watch report from 2009 highlights the problems that Ethiopian refugees face, including refoulment and abuse as the hands of the Yemeni government.

There is a widely held perception, fueled in part by the government of Yemen, that the Somalis arriving in Yemen are all refugees while the Ethiopians are all illegal migrants in search of work. But this is a gross oversimplification. It is probably true that a large majority of the tens of thousands of Ethiopians who arrive in Yemen by boat are primarily motivated by the search for a job. For precisely that reason most travel onwards to Saudi Arabia and beyond almost immediately after landing on Yemeni beaches. Many Ethiopians, however, are in Yemen because they face severe persecution at home. Ethiopia’s government has grown increasingly repressive over the past decade (HRW, 2009, 16).

According to the report, the Yemeni government often arrests Ethiopian refugees before they have a chance to register with UNHCR to determine refugee status. There is some evidence that the Ethiopian government also aids in the return and deportation of refugees and migrants to Ethiopia.

The Yemeni government is also under strong pressure from the Ethiopian government to repatriate all of its citizens who enter the country illegally, including asylum seekers. Many sources interviewed by Human Rights Watch believe that Yemen has entered into a formal agreement with Ethiopia not to recognize any Ethiopian national as a refugee. Whether a formal agreement exists or not, Ethiopian government pressure is a real factor inhibiting positive change in the government’s policies towards Ethiopian asylum seekers (HRW, 2009, 17).

Ethiopia is a multi-ethnic country with a politically repressive government. Although this Human Rights Watch report was from 2009, recent coverage of Ethiopian refugees notes a marked increase in refugees, with over 75,000 making the journey in 2011 alone (UNHCR as cited in Voice of America, 2012). It seems that while some of those coming to Yemen are actually fleeing political persecution, others are looking for economic opportunities. Although the media tries to make this distinction, it seems that government policies prevent an accurate assessment of how many people qualify as refugees and how many are migrants. Nevertheless, the marked increase in refugees from Ethiopia brings the question of why there so many more refugees in 2011, especially considering the increased political insecurity and unrest which is ongoing in Yemen.

UNHCR has been criticized in the media for its policies in Yemen, which oftentimes conflict with its mandate and the adherence to the 1951 convention.  The Yemeni government’s unequal policies for non-Somali refugees place the UNHCR in a difficult and conflicting place.

UNHCR’s country representative told Human Rights Watch that “if 10 Oromo [Ethiopians] arrived in Kharaz tomorrow, we would ask them not to stay.” This is not entirely accurate, and the truth is more disturbing. UNHCR’s implementing partners who interview and register new arrivals to Kharaz are required to inform UNHCR whenever they discover an Ethiopian national among the people they interview. UNHCR staff then informs the police officers who are stationed in the camp. The police then arrest the Ethiopians—the first step towards eventual refoulement or deportation (HRW, 2009, 39).

It seems that UNHCR has made only some ineffectual protests to the Yemeni government about its policies towards deporting Ethiopian refugees.  An article in the Yemen Observer (Anam, 2011) last year highlighted the corruption at the UNHCR Yemen. An Iraqi refugee reportedly gave a UNHCR worker 4,000USD to arrange for him and his ill daughter to travel out of the country to seek medical care. However, the Iraqi man never received anything for the money and subsequently brought his complaint to the Yemeni authorities and received death threats after the UNHCR worker was arrested by the police. Somali refugees also complain of mistreatment at the hands of UNHCR.

“UNCHR is a place of bribes,” said a Somali refugee. He also stated that he knew of many instances of corruption but he feared for his life if he came forward. “There are gangs of Yemenis and Somalis who work with UNHCR and these gangs would slaughter anybody that reports their corruption,” he claimed (Somali as cited in Anam, 2011).

If the UNHCR is so deeply involved in corruption, it certainly brings into question their credibility and their ability to advocate on behalf refugees to the Yemeni government.

Another element in the conflictual nature of Yemen’s refugee policy is regional politics and the role neighboring Arab countries have in preventing reforms which would allow for the increase of legal refugees in Yemen. Many refugees and migrants who manage to make their way into Yemen have the goal of traveling onward to richer gulf countries and there are regular cases of smuggling interceptions on the Yemen-Saudi Arabian border (Gulf News, 2012). According to Human Rights Watch (2009), Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States place pressure on the Yemeni government to stop the movement of refugees and migrants. Also, the UNHCR states that the Gulf countries would oppose any reforms in Yemen’s refugee policy because “they say that if Yemen has a progressive [refugee] legislation it will attract more people who will then come to their countries” (UNHCR as cited in HRW, 17, 2009). Hoffman (1997) argues that states have a greater ability to use their sovereignty to affect other states; this is true in Yemen where both the Ethiopian government and the Gulf States exert their power to influence the movement of refugees. The influence of the Gulf States, especially Saudi Arabia, exerts another force which prevents Yemen from implementing reforms in its refugee policy.

The previous discussion regarding the government of Yemen’s policies has very real implications for the day-to-day lives of refugees in Yemen and their ability to access education, civil services, livelihoods, healthcare–all outlined in UNHCR’s (2009) Urban Refugee Policy. Major contradictions arise between what the government provides in theory or “officially” and what refugees actually experience when they attempt to access services.

The government asserts that no restrictions are placed on Somalis seeking employment, healthcare or education, but Somalis point to systematic violation of rights. While in theory they are entitled to receive identity cards without charge, authorities routinely solicit bribes. Many cannot afford the $15 usually demanded and in any case a card may provide only limited benefits…Somalis complain of indifference whenever they try to bring complaints against employers. As Yemen's public healthcare system collapses, it has become ever harder for Yemenis to access health professionals, and Somalis report being ignored when they report to government hospitals. They allege that when they are injured in car accidents they are given no help and that rapes and assaults remain uninvestigated. Only a quarter of school-age Somalis in Sana'a attend school (Morris, 2009).

It is difficult to discern if the difficulties that refugees face in obtaining basic services are a direct product of government policies or abuse on the part of civil workers rooted in discrimination, fear, and competition for resources. It is likely that both are a factor in the unequal services that refugees receive. Therefore, it is difficult to decide where to begin to implement change and development agencies sometimes begin by providing services that the government does not provide.

International aid agencies such as Save the Children (2012) have implemented programs targeting education and livelihoods development of refugees. Save the Children established a refugee center in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a that includes a preschool, adult education and handicrafts for women. The goals of the project include giving refugee and marginalized Yemeni children access to education and protection and ultimately integration to Yemeni society. However, the video does not mention anything about the role of the Yemeni government in facilitating or hindering refugee integration. This oversight represents the core conflicting issue regarding Yemen’s refugee policy and efforts to integrate refugees.


Ultimately, in order for the integration projects established by implementing partners such as Save the Children (2012) to be successful, there must be coordination and cooperation with the Yemeni government. An examination of the policies of the Yemeni government regarding refugees has shown that while the government claims to be acting hospitably by accepting Somali refugees on a prima facie basis, there is a marked contradiction in the treatment and services which refugees actually receive compared to Yemenis. Yemen has also committed abuses and refoulment of non-Somali refugees despite being a party to the 1951 convention, which specifically prohibits the refoulment of refugees. Put in perspective, the Yemeni government is weak and is also subject to pressure from foreign governments, but ultimately the accountability can only be placed on Yemen. If the government is serious about its claim to generosity by accepting refugees, it must also provide an environment which is hospitable and even if it cannot greatly increase the quality of its services, it should at least try to diminish the inequalities in access to services which exist because of differences in social class, ethnicity, or refugee status.