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UNHCR proposes another refugee camp for Yemen

Amel Al-Ariqi
Sunday, March 16, 2008

SANAA, March 16 — A UN official said on Thursday that Yemen will still receive an influx of African immigrants for many years to come, whether or not there is political stability in the horn of Africa.

“I don’t want to sound pessimistic, but my feeling is that even if there is a political solution and political progress made in Somalia from where most immigrants are, we will see people leaving Somali shores for many years to come,” said Judy Cheng-Hopkins, the Assistant High Commissioner for Operations in the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

Cheng-Hopkins added that the reason for the predicted influx is a future post-war economy which will still suffer from decades of conflict and instability.

Cheng-Hopkins paid a two-day visit to Yemen to visit the UNHCR-administered refugee camp and reception center on the Yemeni coast. She said that she discussed establishing a new camp in the country with Yemeni officials, but the Yemeni government has not yet formally responded to the agency’s proposition.

The high commissioner’s visit came only one week after the Dutch Development Cooperation Minister, Bert Koenders, visited Yemen's refugee camp in Lahj governate.

The camp in Lahj is located in an isolated, arid area with extremely harsh climate conditions, approximately 100 miles west of Yemen’s commercial capital, Aden. Koenders suggested moving the camp to another location inside of Yemen, partly due to the region's hot and dry environment, but also because of security problems inside and outside the camp.

Cheng-Hopkins, like the Dutch minister, was received by the camp's residents with angry protests on Wednesday. The refugees complained specifically about the harsh conditions that they suffer inside of the camp.

According to the UNHCR representative in Yemen, Adel Jasmin, the camp went through a difficult time during the last two weeks due to the absence of UNHCR staff, who usually work inside the camp. The staff's absence created fears among the camp's residents, he said. "Yesterday [Saturday the 15th] the staff returned and resumed their activities as usual," said Jasmin, who added that 46 security guards protect the camp at all times. The UNHCR staff received threatening letters and phone calls from local tribesmen in the camp’s district, which forced the UNHCR to suspend some of its assistance activities inside the camp for two weeks.

"The villagers around the camp are not in a better position than the refugees, so they are frustrated," said Jasmin. "They see the care and international assistance at the camp, so their frustrations are reflected in different reactions and one of the forms is to threaten us."

The camp is occupied by 9,300 refuges, mostly from Somalia. Unlike the urban refugees, the camp's refugees receive basic services and supplies, including food, medicine, and education from the UNCHR and partner NGOs.

In a recent statement in February, the UNHCR said there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people crossing the Gulf of Aden in illegal, unregistered boats run by smugglers.

The UNHCR said almost 9,000 people, most of them Somalis, arrived at Yemeni coasts in the first two months of 2008. The number is three times as high as during the same period last year, and it may create overcrowding problems inside the camp if the rate of arrival stays the same.

Upon her return, Hopkins said that it is not practical to talk about moving the camp to another location. "We have already been there - we have already invested a lot in this location," she said. "I think it would be irresponsible to close down and move away."

Instead, she recommended keeping the camp at its current size and creating a new camp in Yemen for the newer refugees. However, Cheng-Hopkins said that is difficult to find suitable land for a new camp.

The UNHCR's suggestions are expected to be discussed again at Yemen's regional conference on illegal immigration from Eastern Africa on May 19th.

Source: Yemen Times, Mar 16, 2008