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Desperate Red Sea Journeys: Refugees Pour Into and Out of Yemen

Following the attack that killed 42 Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen, we report from Djibouti on the desperate choices faced by refugees who fled to Yemen and now find themselves in the middle of another conflict.

Written by Emilienne Malfatto, Emeline Wuilbercq Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Newly arrived Yemeni refugees wait at the Obock port in northern Djibouti on May 19, 2015.AP Photo/Mosa'ab Elshamy

OBOCK, Djibouti – Madinah Ibrahim Ali has crossed the Red Sea twice. The first time, 25 years ago, she was fleeing the Eritrean regime with her husband toward the Arabian Peninsula, with hopes for a better future.

The second time, in 2015, they fled in the opposite direction to escape war in Yemen. This time, they went with fewer hopes and “no future,” she says.

They are among thousands of refugees fleeing in both directions across the narrow passage of water that separates the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa.

The desperate choices these refugees face were horrifyingly illustrated this month when a boat carrying around 150 Somali refugees was attacked by a helicopter gunship and military ship after it departed from the Yemeni rebel-held port Hodeidah. At least 42 refugees were killed.

Houthi rebels blamed the Saudi-led coalition for the March 16 attack, which the coalition denied. Officials believe the boat was headed for Sudan.

A man holds the UNHCR temporary registration document covered in blood from a refugee killed off the coast of Yemen on March 17, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / STR)

A man holds the UNHCR temporary registration document covered in blood from a refugee killed off the coast of Yemen on March 17, 2016. (AFP PHOTOSTR)

The closest country for refugees from Yemen is Djibouti, where Ali and her family now live in a refugee camp in Obock, a small port on the coast facing Yemen.

Djibouti, strategically located on the slender Bab el-Mandeb strait, has long been a major transit country for migrants and refugees attempting to make their way to Yemen, and often onward seeking work opportunities in Saudi Arabia or Jordan.

The war has not stopped migrants from continuing to take boats to Yemen. More than 117,000 refugees and migrants, mainly Ethiopians and Somalis, arrived in Yemen last year according to the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR.

“The number of migrants going to Yemen have not really changed since the war, there are always people who go despite the danger,” says Nada Mahmoud, migration response center manager of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) office in Obock. “They are convinced that the danger is not going to fall on them.”

Since the war broke out in Yemen two years ago, boats have also been going back toward Africa. They carry Yemenis fleeing war as well as African migrants and refugees who ended up in the middle of the conflict and had no choice but to turn around.

Ali and her husband came to Yemen as refugees from the authoritarian Eritrean regime. They eked out a living in the impoverished country, with Ali selling homemade Eritrean bread called injera on the streets of Taiz, Yemen’s third largest city. Her husband found odd jobs and other people often stepped in to help them make ends meet. They had four children, who now speak only Arabic rather than their parents’ mother tongue.

But in March 2015, as the U.S.-backed coalition started bombing the Houthi rebels who had taken over swathes of the country, including the capital Sanaa, Ali and her family decided to leave. More than 10,000 civilians have been killed in the conflict, while around 2 million people are displaced inside Yemen and thousands have fled the country.

“The war was difficult – a lot of bombings. [So] we fled to the sea,” Ali says. “We cannot go back to Yemen. We cannot go back to Eritrea. We want to go out, to Europe.”

Madinah sits in her tent in Markazi refugee camp. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Madinah sits in her tent in Markazi refugee camp. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Djibouti shelters around 26,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. “When the crisis in Yemen started, many countries did not accept to host the refugees,” says Amira Abd el-Khalek, UNHCR’s communications officer in Djibouti. The small country has “a welcoming spirit,” she says.

There are three official refugee camps in the country. Ali Addeh and Holl Holl in the south mainly host Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, some of whom have been there for almost 30 years. Following the recent wave of arrivals from Yemen, UNHCR and Djiboutian authorities constructed Markazi camp in Obock, where Ali and her family live.

Around 1,500 people live there in tents and small huts, according to UNHCR. Directly opposite the camp is the reception center of the U.N.’s migration agency, the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

IOM is in charge of organizing the repatriation of refugees and migrants from Yemen to Djibouti and on to their native country, where possible. All of this requires rigorous logistics and the approval of the Saudi-led coalition to get access to Yemen’s maritime waters and ports. IOM has evacuated around 4,000 migrants by sea and 2,000 by air since the outbreak of war.

A young Yemeni refugee washes dishes outside her house in Markazi refugee camp. (Emilienne Malfatto)

A young Yemeni refugee washes dishes outside her house in Markazi refugee camp. (Emilienne Malfatto)

Obock has temperatures above 122F (50C) in summer and a harsh desert wind called khamsin. “It’s like a sand tornado, with everything, sand, garbage … You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, it gets everywhere, sometimes it blows tents away,” says Irsaal, a Yemeni refugee in her late forties living in Markazi camp.

Except for the wind, the heat and the sand, there is not much in Obock. Official records say 20,000 people live here, but people in the town say the true figure is closer to 5,000. The economy officially relies on fishing, unofficially on migrant trafficking.

The port lies very close to the Yemeni coast. So close that some residents of Markazi camp sometimes go back to Yemen – to visit family, pick up official papers, or just be home for a while – like Irsaal’s sister who went back to Aden with her family.

“I begged her not to go. She said she’d rather die there than live here,” Irsaal says. “I’ve not heard from her for six months.”

Irsaal’s husband was killed in a bombing that destroyed her apartment building in Yemen. She fled to Djibouti in the spring of 2015.

She has painted the walls of her hut pink and installed a television to pass the time. She is determined to keep going for the sake of her teenage son who fled with her. But she cannot get used to her new surroundings. “There are spiders, mice, scorpions … We used to live like princes, now we’re like beggars,” she says.

Irsaal fears they may be stuck in the desert for a while. “The war is not over, it has just begun,” she says. This uncertain future is shared by thousands of Yemenis, as well as the refugees who thought that crossing the Red Sea would lead to a better life.

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