UNHCR is in a difficult position in Yemen. It is attempting to strike a balance between goals that are, at least to some degree, in tension with one another. The UN refugee agency is mandated to ensure that the government respects the rights of all refugees and asylum seekers. This necessitates that it maintain a good relationship with the government to continue assisting those considered to be refugees by the government, but also persuading and pressing the government on behalf of those who are wrongly denied refugee protection. Complicating matters further, increasingly since 2007, UNHCR has been involved in delicate negotiations around the fate of internally displaced Yemeni citizens trapped in the midst of a conflict in northern Yemen between government forces and Huthi rebels.
Admittedly there are serious practical limits to UNHCR’s ability to directly influence the Yemeni government’s policies or to mobilize outside pressure to build positive momentum. But too often UNHCR’s actions have suggested that the problems facing Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen are secondary to other concerns.
UNHCR officials in Yemen told Human Rights Watch that the agency is working “stone by stone” to address some of these issues quietly and behind closed doors.169 But UNHCR can point to few tangible successes in addressing the widespread patterns of refoulement and human rights abuse affecting Ethiopians in Yemen.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that UNHCR has not been sufficiently assertive or proactive in seeking to find ways to persuade and pressure the Yemeni government to address the following three core issues, all of which are discussed in detail elsewhere in this report.
Systematic Detention and Refoulement of Ethiopian Asylum Seekers
Ethiopians arriving in Yemen, and in particular those arriving along the Red Sea coast by boat, lack any legal route to reach a UNHCR office and undergo Refugee Status Determination. UNHCR’s private interventions with the Yemeni government to stop arresting and refouling people seeking asylum and to put in place procedures to help them to do so have not worked. When UNHCR’s access to asylum seekers is blocked and when refoulement is imminent, particularly after private interventions have failed, UNHCR should publicly hold the government accountable. In Yemen, whether at transit points on the coast, at the Kharaz refugee camp, or along travel routes from Kharaz to Sana’a or Aden, UNHCR should identify, register, accompany, and provide appropriate documents (10-day appointment slips, person of concern letters, or refugee certificates) to highly vulnerable asylum seekers needing its protection. UNHCR has also not sufficiently pushed the Yemeni government to allow Ethiopian asylum seekers in need of medical attention to access the services at UNHCR’s transit point near the coast at Bab-el-Mandeb without fear of immediate arrest and refoulement.
Asked by Human Rights Watch to describe its efforts to push for a change to Yemeni government policies that violate refugee rights, the UNHCR country representative replied that officials, including the High Commissioner for Refugees himself, had expressed his “deep concern” about the issue in several private meetings with Yemeni government officials since 2008. But given the seriousness of the human rights violations and that these private expressions of concern have proven ineffective in bringing change, they do not by themselves represent an adequate attempt by UNHCR to advocate forcefully for the rights of Ethiopian asylum seekers. UNHCR has also helped spearhead the creation of a Mixed Migration Task Force involving key regional stakeholders—a useful coordinating mechanism across a range of issues, but not one that has translated into effective advocacy targeting the Yemeni government’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers.
UNHCR also told Human Rights Watch that it has invited the Yemeni government to establish a presence on both the Red Sea and Gulf coasts to issue government-certified transit passes to non-Somali asylum seekers. This would be a welcome development if the government agreed to it. But simply “inviting” the Yemeni government not to exclude non-Somali nationals from its refugee-protection procedures is not an appropriate response to a policy that violates the government’s core obligation under the Refugee Convention not to deport asylum seekers. UNHCR has indicated to Human Rights Watch that it is now issuing 10-day appointment slips at Kharaz and in some particularly vulnerable cases is also conducting refugee status determinations there.
Access to Ethiopian Nationals in Detention Awaiting Deportation
UNHCR says that it has a “long-term goal” of gaining regular access to Ethiopian nationals in detention awaiting deportation. This, of course, should be a short-term priority and not simply a long-term goal. UNHCR has expressed concern about its lack of access to, or information about, detainees in private meetings and workshops with government officials, but this has not resulted in any positive change and has not been accompanied by more robust advocacy efforts. UNHCR has helped set up a Detention Working Group with the involvement of the government and nongovernmental organizations and believes that this mechanism could prove to be an effective mechanism to exchange information and push for better access to detention facilities. It should also rapidly implement plans to establish mobile teams capable of visiting detention facilities and conducting refugee status determinations.
UNHCR has also tried to work within the limits of the current context by seeking out informal sources of information about the numbers and treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in detention. Such efforts are welcome but are no substitute for effective advocacy aimed at securing regular access to and information about Ethiopians and other non-Somalis in detention.
As described above, there are credible allegations that Ethiopian embassy officials in Sana’a have coerced Ethiopian nationals in detention into stating that they are willing to return to Ethiopia. Human Rights Watch asked whether UNHCR had raised this issue with either the Yemeni or Ethiopian governments. UNHCR replied only that it was “concerned” about the practice and did not elaborate.
Identification Documents for Non-Somali Refugees
The most direct way to alleviate some of the protection and discrimination issues faced by Ethiopian and other non-Somali refugees in Yemen would be for the Yemeni government to issue them valid ID documents like those it issues to Somali nationals. There is no defensible basis for the government’s discriminatory approach to this issue but UNHCR has not demonstrated that it has taken sufficient steps to push the government to immediately issue ID documents to all recognized refugees regardless of nationality. UNHCR has, however, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government that registration of all non-Somali refugees will begin during the first half of 2010. UNHCR appears confident that this will ultimately result in the issuance of valid government ID documents to all refugees, but this has not been clearly spelled out in the MoU. And as discussed below, the registration exercise raises concerns of its own regarding the status of non-Somali refugees.
Failure to Address Discrimination Effectively
UNHCR’s failure to effectively address some of the most serious issues facing the Ethiopian refugee population in Yemen stands in contrast to the commitments laid out in the agency’s new policy on “refugee protection and solutions in urban areas.” The policy states that UNHCR will “strive to ensure that refugees…are treated as equals before the law and are not subjected to any form of discrimination by law enforcement agencies and other representatives of the state.” But UNHCR has largely failed to make robust efforts to address this issue in the case of Ethiopian refugees in Yemen. The policy also states that UNHCR will endeavor to ensure that in situations where the authorities do not provide documentation to refugees it will provide that documentation itself and “endeavor to ensure that such documents are formally recognized by the authorities.” But in Yemen the authorities do not formally recognize either the documentation UNHCR issues to non-Somali refugees or the 10-day appointment slips it issues to non-Somali asylum seekers at the Ahwar and Mayfa’a reception centers.
UNHCR states that since the October 2008 arrest of 56 Ethiopian asylum seekers who were detained in UNHCR’s compound at Kharaz, it has “firmly conveyed to the Yemeni government its categorical refusal to permit the use of its facilities for retention purposes” and that there have been no such incidents since October 2008. While this is welcome, UNHCR’s current policy is to cooperate with the Yemeni security forces by turning over to the police Ethiopian asylum seekers from Kharaz refugee camp, an action that puts them at risk of refoulement. UNHCR also now warns Ethiopian asylum seekers not to come to Kharaz and refuses to transport them there, although there are no alternative sites where they can find protection. Although UNHCR also states that it has a goal of being able to welcome all asylum seekers, regardless of nationality, at Kharaz, its current policy is to deter non-Somali asylum seekers from seeking assistance at the camp.
UNHCR has agreed with the government of Yemen to carry out a registration exercise of all refugees in the country. The exercise, which is mandatory, began in March 2009 with Somali refugees. In March or April 2010 it should then also commence with non-Somali refugees. At the conclusion of the registration exercise any refugee who has failed to participate will be considered as being in the country illegally and subject to deportation. One very worrying aspect of the registration exercise is that UNHCR has neither sought nor received any assurances from the government of Yemen that it will not seek to use the registration of non- Somalis as a pretext to revisit and strip the refugee status given to them by UNHCR. Some UNHCR officials privately expressed concerns about this possibility to Human Rights Watch. UNHCR has sought to ensure that any new legislation on refugees in Yemen—passage of which is a central goal of UNHCR—includes provisions that safeguard the status of refugees recognized by UNHCR. There is no expected timeline for the drafting and passage of such legislation, however. Given that the government of Yemen does not wish to recognize non-Somalis, especially from the Horn of Africa, as refugees, this is a very real concern.
On other issues, such as the Yemeni government’s treatment of Ethiopian nationals who arrive along the Arab Sea coast, UNHCR has achieved some progress. However, as defined in the recommendations at the start of this report, UNHCR still has considerable work to do to push for further improvements in the Yemeni government’s adherence to its international obligations.
– HOSTILE SHORES Abuse and Refoulement of Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Yemen. Human Rights Watch, Printed in the United States of America.
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