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Escaping conflict: Yemeni refugees in Addis

Escaping conflict: Yemeni refugees in Addis

Ahmed is a little boy of around 9 years old. He runs across the street around Atlas Hotel, yells out people’s names when he sees them approach, and waves around a piece of wood he plays with as he wanders the streets of Bole.

Ahmed’s father holds up a laminated plastic sign in Amharic that explains he is a Yemeni refugee and in need of help. He is among thousands of Yemeni refugees that have flocked to Ethiopia in the past 6 months, escaping civil war, drought and famine.

Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians have made the dangerous trek into Djibouti, across the Red Sea into Yemen in hopes of a better life. This trend continues to this day with these young people endangering their lives during the treacherous crossing of the sea to live as illegal immigrants in a foreign land. News of their lives under harsh work conditions or as slaves in people’s homes is often heard. The 180,000 refugees from the Middle East that have recently returned to Ethiopia is also memorable. International Labor Organization in collaboration with 251 Communications has developed a mobile app SIRA to help these returnees reintegrate into the job market by linking them with potential employers.

With this in mind, the migration route to the Middle East now flows both ways. Refuges from Yemen and Syria can occasionally been seen in the streets of Addis Ababa and several more live outside the city. Ethiopia is one of the largest refugee asylum countries in the world and the second largest in Africa following Uganda. At the beginning of 2018, Ethiopia has hosted 892,555 refugees that fled their homes as a result of political instability, conflict, famine and other problems. So what is being done to integrate them into the country?

Along with immigrants from South Sudan, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia, refugees from Yemen and Syria have entered the country this past year. As of June 2018, there are a total of 22.443 refugees in Addis Ababa, mainly from Eritrea, Yemen, Somalia and South Sudan. The majority of these (79%) are from Eritrea and 8.3% of these are from Yemen. Since November 2017, 9,292 Yemenis have entered the country through Bole International Airport and 8,965 have departed by November of this year. Officially 1,771 Yemeni refugees are in the country but the number can be as high as 4000. Syrian refugees in Addis are estimated to be significantly fewer.

The war in Yemen, in conjunction with ecological crisis has resulted in the largest humanitarian disaster the world has ever seen. According to the UN, more than 600 civilians have been killed and 10,700 injured since March 2015. The lack of adequate health care facilities has forced massive outbreaks of cholera and nearly two thirds of the Yemeni population is food insecure.

More than 3 million Yemenis have fled their homes in the past 3 years and tens of thousands have made the trip across the Red Sea into the Horn region.

In a recent interview with Al-Jazeera, Rafiq Ahmed, chairman of the Yemeni Refugee Community in Ethiopia said, “We live here like it’s our own country. This is because of the huge bond dating back thousands of years between Ethiopia and Yemen.”

Yemen has historical ties with Ethiopia. Some wall inscriptions state that the Axumite kingdom extended throughout Ethiopia into Yemen and the southern Arabian Peninsula. Yemen and Ethiopia enjoyed trade relations during Medieval times. Yemenis became the largest Arab community in Ethiopia rooting themselves in the country during the 1920s by becoming shop operators, sweet sellers, launderers and butchers. During Italy’s 1936 invasion of Ethiopia, the Italians brought in numerous Yemenis to work as builders. And in times of crisis, Yemen provided a safe haven for Ethiopian refugees and Ethiopia in turn accepted Yemeni immigrants during times of political upheaval.

Many Yemenis cross from Aden to Djibouti by boat before crossing the Ethiopian border. The Many have been in the country since war broke out in 2015 while several more have arrived more recently, following family members already in the country. Some are beneficiaries of the government’s Out-of-camp policy. They have been allowed to reside in urban areas and seek employment. However, opportunities for employment are scarce.

With few employment prospects and dim likelihood of returning home any time soon, many have made their homes around the Urban Refugee Reception Centre office in Hayahulet. A little known restaurant in Bole area is a convening point for those that have made the city their home and for the new arrivals. The UNHCR provides 70 U.S. dollars per person for refugees that reside in urban areas of Addis Ababa. However, the organization has only received 17% of the USD 327.8 million dollars needed to support refugees in Ethiopia. Living expenses in the city are high and many have resorted to begging.

One of the main objectives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees global compact is enhancing refugee self-reliance. The Ethiopian government launched the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework (CRRF) in 2017. According to the UNHCR report on the CRRF in July, Ethiopia plans to expand its out-of-camp policy; provide work permits to refugees; increase enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education; provide access to irrigable land for crop cultivation; facilitate local integration in instances of protracted displacement; earmark a percentage of jobs within industrial parks to refugees; and provide access to vital events documentation to facilitate increased access to basic and essential social services. The government has also planned to amendment to the 2004 Refugee Proclamation, which will enable refugees to become more independent, better protected and have greater access to local solutions.

The residents of the city have grown used to seeing these refugees. The confusion that was stirred up a few months ago is dissipating, now. Their integration into local community is questionable. Most treat them with pity, often praying for those still trapped in their crisis-torn homes, and hope to forget them soon. They frequently approach cars and better-off neighborhoods, often amassing more cash than local beggars. Some of these refugees make enough for their daily food and save for their monthly rent. But what will the future hold for them?

The famine in Yemen remains the largest humanitarian crisis in the world, The US pulled out troops from Syria on December 26 and both countries continue to be fighting ground for Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran. It is unlikely that these crises will end soon and that refugees or the displaced will return home in the near future. 

Ahmed joins his father on the sidewalk but a passerby immediately distracts him. The cafés nearby are used to this pair, offering them refreshments, lunch or shade from the strong midafternoon sun. Ahmed eats a little from plate of french-fries the café staff has brought him then rushes out to invite his father inside.