Last month, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a campaign to spread awareness about Yemen’s refugee crisis. Whilst most people might think about people fleeing war-torn Yemen, this campaign addresses the dangers of refugees, mainly from Ethiopia and Somali, making the harrowing journey to Yemen to seek asylum. According to the UNHCR in 2016, more than 117,000 refugees have traveled across the Gulf of Arden and the Red Sea, and have arrived in Yemen. This is in comparison to the 87,000 people who fled Yemen to the Horn of Africa in the same year.
The song and video titled ‘Dangerous Crossings’ was created in Cairo by former refugee Maryum Mursal and features Ethiopian musicians Yeshie Demalash, Dawit NEga, and Tadele Roba, as well as Somalian musician Aarmaanta and Hany Adel from Egypt. The music and lyrics were composed during a workshop with local musicians and refugees. The producer of the song, George Acogny, has said that the purpose of the campaign is to awaken refugees to the hazards of making the journey to Yemen. “Every time I play the song to someone, they start weeping,” Acogny told Al Jazeera. “It’s difficult not to get touched emotionally because it taps into a part of the crisis that’s not so obvious.”
A journey to Yemen can cost between $300 to $500, but refugees can lose much more from extortion, with many stories of refugees being kidnapped and ransoms demanded from families. Refugees who remain in Yemen and wish to claim asylum could be waiting for up to five years and face struggles to register applications or even have their presence documented by authorities. Work opportunities are also limited in war-torn Yemen and most refugees, if they have the means to, end up traveling elsewhere.
The UNHCR has stated that four-fifths of the Yemen population, which is around 19 million people, are now dependent on humanitarian aid. Women account for one-third of the Somalian refugees and 13 percent of the Ethiopian refugees, and are particularly at risk of sexual violence and trafficking. Humanitarian organizations have also estimated that around a quarter of those traveling to Yemen are children. The UNHCR has focused their campaigning on this issue as “safety is a misnomer within a country of war” and to highlight that their operational capacity is limited by a lack of security in the area. Thus, safety for these refugees needs to be established elsewhere.
This campaign has also been launched at a time when the UN Humanitarian Chief Stephen O’Brien, recently told the UN Security Council that the world is facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the United Nations was founded in 1945. The largest crisis of which is in Yemen, where two-thirds of the population, 18.8 million people, desperately need aid and food. This has grown to affect three million more people than in January. O’Brien has met with senior leaders of the Yemen government and Houthi rebels who currently control the capital Sanaa. All have pledged access for aid, however, O’Brien is skeptical of real action being taken, stating that out of the $2.1 billion dollars that needs to reach 12 million Yemenis, only six percent has been received so far. In response to the crisis, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres will chair a pledging conference for Yemen on April 25th in Geneva, Switzerland.
Although financial aid pledging solutions have only been suggested so far, a clearer global refugee resettlement plan needs to be established immediately in order to lessen the burden on countries, such as Yemen, which do not have the capacity to resettle refugees. Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, which states that a country “cannot punish refugees for entering or living without permission,” but the UNHCR continues to state that Yemen is not a conducive place for asylum. A campaign like ‘Dangerous Crossings’ may raise awareness of these issues. However, altering the mindsets of those desperate to escape Somalia and Ethiopia, as well as smugglers eager to capitalize on their fears will be difficult to establish unless a safer pathway to resettlement can be formed in conjunction with financial aid being directed to establishing peace in Yemen. Finally, the Yemen government and Houthi rebels need to be held accountable for their denial of continuous aid being directed to Yemenis and asylum-seekers, which is so urgently needed.