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Yemen War Places Thousands in Limbo in Djibouti

Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP
Mosa'ab Elshamy/AP

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up camps in Djibouti, located in the Horn of Africa, to care for the thousands of Yemenis fleeing the civil war. The agency needs more help, but now Iranian state media claim Djibouti turned away humanitarian aid.

Most of those fleeing Yemen did their 18-hour journey across the Gulf of Aden on rafts not meant for human beings, while a few managed to catch a ride on larger boats. Most face uncertainty once they land in Djibouti.

“We are overwhelming this country, but we have nowhere else to go,” claimed Amin Nasser, 45.

Said Abu-Saleh, 28, sat among cattle on a small boat with 150 people for over 19 hours. Hamda, 55, and his 80-year-old father Ibrahim Mohamed, who is deaf and blind, live with three families in a small orphanage. Those there do not have any privacy, but they say it is better than the UNCHR camps.

UNCHR placed over 300 tents in the wide open desert, which provides no protection from wild animals. Refugees find hyenas and snakes lurking in the shadows. Also, they must walk over three miles to the nearest town to receive more supplies. UNCHR is pleading for more help from other countries.

“To be able to address all the needs of the vulnerable, we would need more and robust support from the international community,” explained Marie-Claire Sowinetz, a worker with UNCHR.

Help might be on the way. An Iranian cargo ship arrived in Djibouti on Thursday after it was diverted “to avert a showdown with Saudi Arabian and U.S. forces over its original plans to deliver the aid directly to a port in Yemen.” Now the UNCHR will distribute over 2,500 tons of food to the refugees.

On Saturday morning, the Iranian media claimed the Djibouti government turned away a humanitarian aid plane from Iran. The outlet said, “Saudi Arabia pressured Djibouti into not allowing the plane to land.” They did not provide any information why this would happen, though. Saudi Arabia and Iran are both entangled in the civil war. Saudi Arabia bombs the Houthi rebels while their government along with the West “accuse Iran of supporting the Houthis militarily, something Tehran and the rebels both deny.”

Some Yemenis do not need to worry about permanent placement or receiving aid in Djibouti. Salma al-Shabib, 22, told the BBC it is very dangerous in Yemen, but she “will be safe in the United States of America.” Her father will whisk her to America since he possesses a passport. Jaber landed in Djibouti wearing a Michigan State tracksuit, which was a hint where he is headed.

“We have an appointment in a different country,” he said. “I put my life at risk to get my family out of Yemen. It’s extremely dangerous. The Houthis point their guns at you and check everyone, even the kids. But they’re just kids with heavy-powered machine guns.”

Unfortunately, some Yemenis forgot or lost their treasured American passports on the flight out of the war zone. One man, who did not provide his name, said he is from New York and traveled to Yemen five months ago to visit Facebook friends. But the American Embassy will not provide him with a new passport until he finds a hotel room.

The BBC found one man at the UNCHR camp who lost his American passport, and the embassy could not find his name. He was going to seek refuge at the German consulate in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, but the fighting was too intense. The man next to him only owns a Yemen passport and cannot “leave without a visa.”

They also found Sowinetz surrounded by angry Yemenis, who demanded answers and relief from the heat in Djibouti.

“Weeks ago, many of these people lived in air conditioned apartments in Aden and now they find themselves in a refugee camp in a tent,” she said. “For now, we’re focusing on this emergency and passing on people’s information to embassies.”


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