Yemen: Fleeing one war to die in another

Dr Hala Mejanni
CARE staff distribute food vouchers to women and children as part of a CARE food and nutrition security project in Lahaj, Yemen, February 2015

Syrian refugees who sought security in Yemen find themselves in danger once again, writes Dr Hala Mejanni from CARE Yemen

Imagine that one day you awake in your home surrounded by a war you had not expected. Aerial bombings have destroyed the houses of neighbours. Fires are burning. The smell of battle is everywhere, war is enveloping you. You cannot reach your relatives, and you fear they may be dead. You have little money and the banks have closed. You pack what you can in a bag, fleeing with family to a second country, where you hope to find a sense of safety, peace and some assistance.

But soon, that country too slips into war. More rockets, more aerial bombings. Houses destroyed. The UNHCR has granted you “temporary protection status” but this means little amidst air raids and shelling that target without discrimination. Hospital care is no better than what was available in your war-torn homeland. Resources are limited. There is little work.

And worst of all, there is little chance of escape. Your special ‘temporary protection status’, meant to save you from one war, has surrendered you to another. As other expatriates are evacuated, you are informed by an international official that as a Syrian, you must stay. “What country will accept you?”

Unable to flee, there is nowhere to go. Yet, in staying, there is no assistance available to you. You have saved yourself from one war, only to fear dying elsewhere in another.

I am one of an estimated 15,000 Syrians trying to survive the conflict in Yemen. Only three thousand are registered as refugees with UNHCR. They do not live in camps, but rather are scattered in different cities, hidden among the poor and vulnerable in urban centres across Yemen.

As the project manager of the Syria Project for CARE International in Yemen, I have frequently met with Syrian refugees, assessing their needs and finding ways to respond either with cash assistance or through referrals. But in recent months, I was overwhelmed with phone calls and inquiries from this refugee population desperately seeking sanctuary.

Many are trapped in Aden city with no food or water and they fear being killed if they leave their apartments. Others have sought refuge in nearby villages which may provide some safety to them, but then what? With no income, no assistance, how could they survive the long months of war?

This vulnerable group, who fled to Yemen in search of security, are now caught here and fearing for their lives. They are desperately seeking access to safe passage – some way of escape from yet another war – hoping to flee Yemen and relocate to a third country, any country.

Some refugees have told me they would even return to Syria, preferring to live with the uncertainty of being detained or killed by war in their own land, rather than trying to survive war here.

But the world has sent a clear message to Syrians in Yemen; whether registered as a refugee or not, you are left alone in a conflict that you do not relate to and perhaps do not even understand. Do we care?

The war has taken a toll on Yemen. According to UNHCR, more than half a million Yemenis are also displaced – but they have family and friends, a social safety net that they can rely upon. For Syrians, we are alone with few options for escape.

At a time when European governments are discussing the problem of migrants, we – Syrian refugees in Yemen – already displaced once (if not several times) are a reminder that it is desperation to survive that drives us to risk our lives making the difficult journey over rough seas.

There is little assistance available to Syrian refugees as Yemen slips further into conflict. CARE has been one of only a few international organisations addressing the plight of Syrian refugees in Yemen. In recent months, CARE helped 1,300 Syrian families maintain appropriate shelter, providing them with monthly rental assistance, funded by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). We have supported another 800 households with basic items, such as household kits and hygiene kits. In total, CARE has been able to assist close to 10,000 Syrians in Yemen, men and women, girls and boys.

But for those desperate to survive, much more needs to happen. Who will help the hundreds of thousands affected by this crisis, or those who have sought a safe haven only to find more war? Why are we failing humanity, again?

As the media turns its head from one conflict to another, as focus shifts towards the humanitarian disasters unfolding elsewhere, on behalf of the thousands of refugees trapped in another war, do not forget Syrian refugees, in Yemen, or elsewhere.

Dr Hala Mejanni's picture

Dr Hala Mejanni is Project Manager for CARE International in Yemen.