The Ethiopian refugee Seble Yohanes told the Yemen Times that she is only thirty, but her pale face with wide eyes full of concern makes her looks as if she was 50.
Looking for a safe place to raise her demands, Yohanes went to the Ministry of Human Rights in the Yemeni capital of Sana’a on Saturday. Yohanes, along with other refugees from Ethiopia, decided to sleep on the pavement next to the Ministry.
During the daytime, this exposed place becomes a sit-in rally to demand protection of their rights from the United Nations Higher Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Yemeni government.
“The police forces arrested us in front of the Human Rights Ministry,” Yohanes said, with fear evident in her pallid face at the thought of police, who have repeatedly raided illegal refugees in Yemen and arrested as many as they can.
Ethiopian refugees contacted Yohanes and her compatriots in an attempt to relay details of the inhuman conditions inside the police detention center, intensifying her fear of ending up like them.
Yohanes handed her mobile over to a Yemen Times reporter while Hathem, Yohanes’ friend speaking on the phone while being held in a crowded detention center in Sana’a, tried to paint a vivid picture of his brutal conditions and suffering, in the hopes that the whole world might know about those in the detention centers.
More than 220 imprisoned Ethiopians are kept inside a single room. The prisoners are subjected to beating and only given one meal a day, according to Hathem.
“Diseases are spreading due to the unhealthy environment and we are not allowed to receive medical treatment,” added Hathem, who speaks limited Arabic.
The words of Hathem stoked Yohanes’ and her friends’ fear of having to face a similar fate. Unfortunately, their fears did not take long to materialize.
On Saturday afternoon, police forces arrested Yohanes along with seven other Ethiopian refugees, including two women and a 5 year-old girl, Sara.
They were taken from behind the Ministry of Human Rights, according to eyewitnesses.
While in a police patrol car, Yohanes managed to make a brief call to the Yemen Times. She spoke with difficulty, as it was clear she was crying.
“We were supposed to meet with Horia Mashhor, the Yemeni Minister of Human Rights, later today,” she said.
“After several days of continued attempts and great efforts to get to Mashhor, who was passing us for days going in and out of the Ministry, looking very busy, she agreed to meet us and set an appointment to discuss our situation.”
She said that they had short conversations with Mashhor in front of the Ministry of Human Rights, and after talking to them for a few moments she was interrupted with several calls from governmental officials who told her to leave, not taking into consideration her conversation with the refugees.
Two days prior to her arrest, police managed to detain most of the refugees who had created a protest encampment in front of the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees for eleven months, she noted.
According to Yohanes, some refugees were held in a prison in Sana’a, while some others were moved to the camp for African refugees located in the Kharaz coastal area near the strait of Bab Al-Mandab, a key shipping lane through which more than three million barrels of oil pass daily.
Useless asylum ID
There is nothing that can protect Yohanes and the other refugees from police pursuit and relentless raids except for asylum IDs issued by UNHCR.
The first provision of the ID, however, states that the UNHCR’s ability to interfere and protect the refugees is still limited.
The UNHCR office recognizes only the official refugees carrying IDs. But according to the UNHCR, holders of these IDs are not necessarily guaranteed any financial assistance nor the right to resettle in a third country. This draws the ire of African refugees, particularly Ethiopians.
The IDs terms are based on Articles no.17 and 22 of the 1951 United Nations convention relating to the status of refugees, which was ratified by Yemen. The convention only ensures refugees the right to work and public education. The ID has to be renewed every year.
Some minority groups from the Ethiopian political opposition have managed to resettle in the United States and EU countries after staying in Yemen for a while.
Yohanes, like most of the African refugees who continue flowing into Yemen, do not want to settle down in Yemen. They consider it a transition point for their resettlement in rich countries like the Gulf states, the US, or EU countries.
Imam Hussein Edrees, a 60-year-old Ethiopian refugee, was standing among refugees at the protest encampment in front of the Ministry of Human Rights, holding his old refugee documents in his hands.
On November 16, 1992, Edrees obtained his asylum in Yemen from the UNHCR, and had been renewing his ID every year, until 2006, when the UN agency began to refuse to continue renewing his asylum card.
Although he has had five official appointments with UNHCR representatives in Yemen, Edrees said he has not been able to meet any officials of the UN Refugee Agency.
Khadija Nassr Al-Din, another Ethiopian refugee, who has been in Yemen for more than fifteen years, said her husband Kaidani Mariam Asfa died in 2001 after a long struggle with intestinal cancer. However, neither the UNHCR nor the Yemeni government offered her or her husband any assistance.
With her eyes full of tears, Kadija said, ” my husband died while hugging our son.”
While Kadija is Muslim, her husband was Christian. Their son, Ibrahim, was given a common name to both religions. They embodied a unique coexistence between people with different religious backgrounds.
Thousands of African refugees risk their lives when they cross the Red Sea on board small boats run by human traffickers. Smugglers dump them into the sea two kilometers from the Yemeni shore, forcing them to swim the rest of the way.
Yohanes said that in the boats belonging to traffickers, the refugees are mercilessly beaten if they attempt to move or raise heads or hands.
In a separate event, last month the Interior Ministry found an armed gang in Haradh area, in the northern governorate of Hajjah located along the borders with Saudi Arabia. The gang was holding dozens of illegal African refugees prisoner, mostly Ethiopians.
In a statement, the ministry said more than 170 African refugee were kidnapped, including ten women, 50 children, and 19 old men. The refugees were subjected to beating and torture by the armed gang.
“Due to beating that targeted the face and other sensitive areas, some refugees now suffer from sight and hearing problems,” added the statement.
The ministry also revealed that in February, police forces had managed to arrest two members of the armed gang. The two members had been detaining 128 illegal refugees from whom they were trying to extort money.
More than 65,000 Ethiopian immigrants arrived to Yemen in 2011, compared to 34,422 in 2010, according to the UNHCR.
The UN refuge agency further pointed out that 37, 333 Ethiopians arrived in Yemen illegally, revealing that 616 are either dead or still missing.