ADEN, 10 March 2011 (IRIN) - The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it is concerned by opposition media reports alleging the Yemen government is recruiting Somali refugees as mercenaries to help put down a growing protest movement demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Hala al-Horany, UNHCR protection officer in the southern city of Aden, said the agency had investigated and talked extensively to refugee leaders, but was unable to find even a single anecdotal case of government recruitment among the large Somali refugee population.
“We are concerned about this situation and are still following up as this has serious implications for the protection of refugees in the short and long term,” Horany told IRIN. “We have also conducted awareness-raising in the communities and warned them against even participating in demonstrations, let alone mercenary activity.”
The mercenary allegations were reported in opposition media, including TV channel Aden Live, and according to UNHCR had also surfaced on social networks like Facebook. They echo reports from Libya that embattled leader Muammar Gaddafi had recruited foreign fighters, resulting in the persecution of migrants and workers from sub-Saharan Africa accused - by Gaddafi opponents - of supporting the regime.
Hali Mahaji Abdi, a community service worker with the development agency ADRA in Basateen, a predominantly Somali-populated district of Aden, told IRIN she had not heard any rumours of recruitment, but dismissed the idea: “There is war in Somalia and we have found freedom in Yemen, how can Somalis come and fight in Yemen?”
There are an estimated 181,561 Somali refugees in Yemen, most of them urban-based and granted prima facie refugee status by a government that has adopted an open door policy. Somalia has been riven by conflict since the ousting of former president Siad Barre in 1991.
While anti-government protesters in Aden complain bitterly over the alleged heavy-handedness of the security forces in clashes that have left over 20 dead since 16 February, nobody IRIN spoke to mentioned the threat of Somali mercenaries.
There was consensus that if recruitment and training was under way it would happen in the remote and mountainous Abyan region in the south, where al-Qaeda is active, and the government has several military bases.
Protests threaten Somali livelihoods
Saleh is facing growing countrywide opposition to his 32-year rule, particularly among the youth demanding more jobs, a fairer distribution of wealth, and an end to corruption. In Aden, protesters have occupied streets in several districts, throwing up barricades during disturbances, paralysing large parts of the city.
That poses problems for Somali refugees who are allowed to work in Yemen, but typically rely on day-to-day earnings as car washers, housemaids or beggars.
“Six or seven people rent one room and they try and manage, but rent is expensive [about US$35 per month]. Some women can’t go out to work, or come back early for fear of the demonstrations,” said Nasiha Omar of INTERSOS, an NGO that runs a drop-in centre for refugees in Basateen.
Al-Horany said ADRA has been asked to “be more inclusive” in terms of the targeting of its financial support to refugees, to help deal with any increase in needs.
“As anything could happen, we are updating our contingency plan and training the refugees and helping them establish joint committees with our [NGO] partners to run essential services in case the situation blows up,” she added.
The irony is that if political violence escalates in Aden, there could be an influx of people into apolitical Basateen, seeking stability and functioning services. “In the last few weeks, when roads to the hospitals outside have been blocked, we’ve seen an influx of Yemenis living in the surrounding areas into Basateen to use the primary health care clinic there,” said al-Horany.