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The road from Yemen: Part 3


Djibouti: ‘I don’t even return to Yemen in my dreams’

Yemeni refugees in Djibouti have no illusions about the current situation in their country. At best, their home towns and cities are plagued by rampant inflation and a complete lack of opportunities to earn an income, which makes it difficult for families to meet even their most basic needs. At worst, fighter jets roar overhead heralding an imminent airstrike, or snipers fire into crowded markets and at mosques during Friday prayers. 

The conflict, now in its fifth year, seems intractable. “The Houthis will never stop, the Saudis will never stop,” says a mother of six. “Even if the fighting stopped today, how long would it take for the country to get back to where it was? Ten, 15, 20 years?”, says a father of five. “Yemen is a land that never tires of blood," says a married father of three living in the camp alone. Given the unlikely prospect of a swift end to the war, the conclusion is obvious. There is no realistic prospect of refugees returning in the short or medium term.

There are 5,129 Yemenis in Djibouti, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), half of whom live in Markazi camp in the northern port city of Obock. The camp residents tend to be the more vulnerable refugees; the elderly, those with disabilities and female-headed households. Many single men have tried their luck in the capital, though some have made their way to the camp after failing to earn a decent income. Meagre salaries and the high cost of living have made it particularly difficult for them to establish themselves in the city. 

As part of IDMC's Invisible Majority thematic research, in which we examine the relationship between internal displacement and cross border movements, I travelled to Djibouti in early June to interview Yemenis in and outside the camp to better understand their journeys and their struggle to achieve a durable solution to their displacement. 

‘Blood is cheap, killing is everywhere’

The majority of interviewees in the camp came from the urban areas of Sana’a, Aden and Taiz, which for some was their place of birth and for others their adopted home having moved there for work before the war. Another group were from Dubab and Bab al-Mandab, fishing towns on the Yemeni coast just a couple of hours boat ride from Obock. The majority had fled the country for the same reason: More than 70 per cent of those interviewed said they had decided to leave as soon as airstrikes began hitting buildings and facilities near their homes. Most young men, however, left when Ansar Allah, known widely as the Houthi movement, took control of their towns and cities and began forcibly recruiting them to fight. 

There is a long history of population movements between Yemen and the Horn of Africa, but the decision to make for Djibouti was not motivated by any ties to the country. No one bar one respondent knew anyone in the country or anything about it before they arrived. The majority simply took someone’s offhand suggestion to seek safety across the Gulf of Aden. The government of Djibouti had opened its doors to Yemenis and were taking care of them, they were told.

Almost 40 per cent of respondents had been internally displaced before making their trip across the sea. Most made the decision to leave Yemen when they realised the fighting would not come to a quick end and living conditions for IDPs - in open fields, in crowded schools-turned IDP sites, or with generous host families - would not be sustainable. For those who left the country directly, it provided no safe haven. Young men would be forced to fight no matter where they fled internally, IDPs coming from the north would be viewed with suspicion in the south, the collapsing economy throughout the country would leave families with no way to meet their most basic needs. For others still, the exhaustion of living through yet another conflict was too much to bear.

Given their country’s geography, Yemenis have few options in terms of reaching a country of refuge, but the journey to Djibouti is relatively easy and safe. Boats leave the ports of Aden, Al-Makha and Bab al-Mandab regularly and captains often carry people for free. Forty per cent of respondents paid nothing for their crossing. Others paid between $100 and $400, depending on how many family members were travelling.

Markazi refugee camp, Djibouti
Markazi refugee camp, three hours north of Djibouti City.

When asked about the possibility of return, bewildered looks greeted me. Had I not been listening? 

“Impossible, I’m never going back, I escaped death a million times,” says a 65-year-old father from Aden.  

“People have become savages, blood is cheap, killing is everywhere,” a family from Sana'a told me.    

“I don’t even return to Yemen in my dreams… no one hates their own country, but has there been a war in the Middle East that has ever ended?” Asked a 72-year-old man from Aden.  

“Yemen is full of bad memories and of people we’ve lost,” confirmed a mother of three from Taiz.  

There are no imminent prospects of durable solutions being achieved outside Yemen either. There is little to no chance of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti being resettled to a third country, a reality they are painfully aware of. UNHCR, which facilitates such processes, said it had resettled a very small number of Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans from Djibouti, but no Yemenis. Host countries simply allocate no “spots” for them. Refugees in Markazi camp repeatedly asked why this was, why the world had forgotten them.

That just leaves local integration. Djibouti’s government has recently decided to house all camp services within government ministries. Health will be managed by the health ministry, education by the education ministry. In theory, this is a solid step toward local integration. School children will receive accredited certificates and qualifications, and Yemenis will benefit from the same services as Djiboutians. The reality, however, is not so straightforward. 

Markazi camp sits on a patch of desert land, where temperatures are over well over 35C (95F) for half of the year, with sandstorms during the summer months. It is far from any livelihood opportunities and services such as health, which are not free for citizens or refugees. Djibouti’s authorities are making significant efforts to prepare the country’s French education system to receive Arabic and English-speaking refugee students, but in the meantime Yemeni children are taught in Arabic in the camp by refugee teachers. The quality of education suffers because it is based only on skills available among the camp population. 
Fostering self-reliance by means of access to livelihood opportunities for working-age adults and a decent education for children is key to local integration, and the Djiboutian government's recent legislation has the potential to improve its chances of success. Until the systems are put in place to implement the envisaged measures for refugees, however, life is a daily struggle for Yemenis as they wait in limbo for an opportunity to bring their displacement to a sustainable end.

This blog series is part of a broader project researching the relationship between internal displacement and cross-border movements along the displacement continuum, based on research with the Migration Governance and Asylum Crises (MAGYC) consortium and IDMC’s Invisible Majority thematic series. In case you missed them, read part one from Berlin here and part two from Greece here. Coming soon will be a thematic discussion of internal displacement issues in Yemen.