Yemen has been devastated for over two years by war between the government of President Abdrabbuh Manour Hadi and those allied within the Houthi rebel movement. Over that time, more than 35,000 Yemenis have escaped across the Gulf of Aden and fled to Djibouti in attempt to reach security and safety. The Markazi camp – located in the port town of Obock in Northern Djibouti – was once home to over 6000 Yemeni refugees. However, a particularly harsh climate and poor living conditions are forcing the refugees who hoped for Markazi to be a safe refuge to look elsewhere for shelter. The war in Yemen is ongoing, the security situation insecure, violence is rife and vital supplies are in low quantity, yet some of the refugees in the Markazi camp are willing to risk their safety by returning to Yemen, preferring risking their safety in their home country rather than being subjected to poor conditions in a place where they thought they would be better off.
In the summer, temperatures in Obock regularly reach 50 degrees Celsius. Winds, known locally as ‘khamsins’, are so strong that they can easily uproot tents. The climate conditions in this area are not suitable for large settlements of already vulnerable people such as those who have, out of desperation fled a war zone. Fawaz, a Yemeni living in the Markazi camp said, “We are scared of staying for another [summer], but what can we do about it? We cannot move. So we have to suffer again.”
Not only does the harsh climate make life at the Markazi camp difficult but also, as a country with widespread poverty, Djibouti has limited resources that they are able to provide to the Yemeni refugees. Many of the refugees have few personal belongings and according to Rachel Savage and Mohammed Ali Kalfood for Irin, part of the Guardian development network, refugees are provided with thin tents that do little to provide shelter from the elements. Furthermore, there is inadequate food, hygiene and water supplies. It is reported by the BBC that refugees are receiving just six kilograms of rice – an amount that refugees at the camp state is “far from enough.”
According to the UNHCR, most people who are staying in the Markazi camp are from poor fishing villages on Yemen’s Red Sea coast. Those who have the resources to do so move out of the camp into other areas of Djibouti, including two camps in the south of Djibouti and to Djibouti City, the capital. Those who do not have the resources to finance their travel onward from Markazi are left with no other option but to remain in the camp. Abullah, a Yemeni living in the Markazi camp said, “Prison in Saudi Arabia is better than this place,” truly signifying how horrific the conditions are.
Though many have gone on to search for other housing in different areas of Djibouti, according to the UNHCR, at least 500 people who were registered at the Markazi camp have voluntarily returned to Yemen despite warnings that the situation is still unsafe and volatile. The UN has reported that over 17 million people do not have adequate access to food, and that nearly half of the population does not have adequate access to safe drinking water. Furthermore, there have been nearly 5000 civilian deaths and at least 8000 civilians have been injured during this violent conflict.
When considering the conditions that people are fleeing in Yemen, we should be surprised that so many people are voluntarily choosing to return to the uncertainty of a war zone rather than remain in a refugee camp where it is normally assumed that they would be safe and more protected. Djibouti is a country, that due to its strategic location, receives some financial support from a number of powerful global players including China and the United States, yet it suffers from extreme poverty. According to sources cited by the BBC and The Guardian, Djibouti is simply unable to provide a higher living condition for those in the camps.
A consequence of the civil war in Yemen has come to be known of as the “Silent war”, due the lack of media coverage and the neglect on behalf of the international community of those who have to live their lives in the wake of the chaos of wartime. No man, women or child should have to make decisions like these, where one option is bad and the other is worse. Increased involvement and funding from the international community is crucial to ensure the safety of those who are searching for it. In the words of Ahmed Abdou Rageh, a man currently living in the Markazi camp, “[We] chose to leave certain death in Yemen only to die a slow one here.”