EthiopianReview.com | July 26th, 2012
Ahlam Mohsen (writer), Nicholas Linn (photographer) | Yemen Times
Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers demonstrated outside the Human Rights Ministry in Hadda on Monday morning, protesting excessive force used by Yemeni security forces to remove them from the country’s immigration prison the previous evening.
According to the former prisoners, security forces forcibly removed them from the prison.
Security forces used tear gas and rubber bullets, the former prisoners said, throwing tear gas canisters into cells to disorient them, before dragging them out and beating them with steel rods.
Ethiopian, Eritrean and Somali refugees who were in the prison now live on the streets.
Following last year’s 11-month demonstration, refugees set up tents outside UNHCR’s Sana’a office before being removed by Yemeni security forces. UNHCR said it offered the refugees a one-time payment to end demonstrations outside the office. Refugees said they were offered $400 per family, though those who accepted UNHCR’s offer said they only received $200 of the promised $400.
During the height of the political uprising, refugees—facing increased violence from Yemeni security forces—demanded a durable and permanent solution to their situations.
“Many of us have been here for 10, 15, 20 years,” said one Oromo-Ethiopian woman. “We asked for Yemeni citizenship or repatriation elsewhere. They rejected all of our demands, and after being removed, we agreed we would go to Al Kharaz refugee camp. They took three buses to Al Kharaz; the rest of us were taken to prison.”
UNHCR estimates 400 refugees were initially taken from outside the UNHCR building and placed in immigration prison. Prior to Sunday’s removal of refugees from the prison, UNHCR estimated there were 120 men, children and women inside. Prisoners said there were 114 refugees—102 Ethiopians, seven Eritreans and five Somalis, including 40 women and 54 children. The youngest of the imprisoned was 3 months old.
“They threw tear gas canisters into the men’s cells,” Makya Ahmed, 25, said. “The gas drifted over, women and children were crying and vomiting. After they removed us from our cell, they hit me in the back with a steel rod and then picked me up and threw me into a van.”
Refugees at Monday’s protest, now living on the streets with no food or water, sounded increasingly desperate.
“We aren’t allowed any dignity,” Ahmed said. “We can’t live like this; take back your IDs. They’re of no use to us,” she said about her Refugee Status identification card.
Desperate for justice
Some refugees threatened to harm themselves if their situations didn’t improve. Several mentioned self-immolation as an option.
“We have no work, no one treats us well, we’ve contacted all the human rights groups,” Yousef Aman, an Oromo-Ethiopian, said. “At this point, we are just tired. I don’t know if there are human beings anywhere else on the planet who live like this. It’s been 10 years for me. I can’t go on; I’d rather destroy myself.”
The majority of the refugees are Muslim and spend the month of Ramadan fasting, praying and thinking of God. Refugees reported that immigration prison authorities did not provide food or water during their last three weeks in prison. They instead relied on friends or community members to bring food and water once a week from outside.
Today, the refugees, who have no blankets, mattresses or clothes other than what they are wearing, sleep on cement pavements, unprotected from the elements. It is Ramadan, but they have no Suhoor or Iftar—one woman wondered aloud if God will accept her fast.
According to the U.N.’s 1951 Refugee Convention, to which Yemen is a signatory, the state has obligations to refugees. These include protecting a refugee’s right to non-refoulement—protection against forcible return. While the Yemeni government grants prima-facie refugee status to Somalis fleeing two decades of war, it does not recognize the refugee status of Ethiopians and Eritreans. Yemeni policy is to arrest and deport them, behavior that is contradictory to international law, according to Human Rights Watch.