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As the U.S. hedges, Djibouti offers hope for Yemeni refugees

Nima Ahmed of Mocha, Yemen, is living with her children and grandchildren at the Markazi refugee camp in Djibouti. (Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

With a brutal cycle of violence gripping Yemen for the past three years, millions of helpless residents are looking for an escape from one of the world’s most dire humanitarian crises.

Just across the Red Sea, the African country of Djibouti has become an unlikely beacon of hope for its eastern neighbor. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 38,000 Yemenis have fled to Djibouti since the civil war broke out in March 2015. Of those, only 4,000 stayed in Djibouti — most continue onward.

One such refugee is Nima Ahmed, from the port city of Mocha on Yemen’s west coast. This month, she decided she could no longer endure the ceaseless gunfire and bombings, devastated city streets and dwindling critical resources, so she left behind most of her family, friends and home to find safety.

Ahmed brought her daughter, son, and three grandsons aboard a boat destined for Obock, a port city in northern Djibouti. She said it was a long ride with no food or water, and she suffered from motion sickness.

“We want to have normal lives and be at peace,” Ahmed said.

On March 12, they arrived at Djibouti’s Markazi refugee camp, where 1,695 people in need of food, shelter or other assistance have relocated. (The 2,264 others, who are more self-sufficient, live in Djibouti City, the nation’s capital.)

The Markazi refugee camp. (Photo: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)

Although they are living in a flimsy tent with inadequate protection from the elements, at least they do not have to worry about being hit by gunfire. Ahmed, whose husband died long ago, would like the rest of her children — still alive in Yemen — to join her in Djibouti eventually, but keeps in touch with them with a phone provided by the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies,  international humanitarian organizations.

“We are far from home, but we can still hear the bombs,” she said.

Ahmed has been in Djibouti for only one week, so she could not address the challenges of assimilating into its culture, but she has no intention of going home. She said that Djibouti offers resources for them for their basic needs, such as food, water, health care, education and — most important — protection. Ahmed’s daughter is considering taking up sewing so she can make clothes for a living. The family’s hopes for the future are simple.

Djibouti, which is slightly smaller than New Jersey, was ranked among the top 10 countries with the most refugees per capita in 2017. Yemenis make up roughly 14 percent (3,959) of Djibouti’s 27,000 refugees, which is equivalent to roughly 3 percent of the nation’s population of just under 900,000.

Djibouti’s location in the Horn of Africa puts it at the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. The Bab el-Mandeb Strait, which connects the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden along Djibouti’s eastern coast, is of tremendous economic and tactical importance in that it serves as a conduit for shipments between the Mediterranean Sea with East Asia.

For strategic and peacekeeping purposes, foreign military superpowers from Europe, Asia and the United States have established bases in Djibouti. As a result of France’s colonial history, France’s largest concentration of overseas military is stationed in Djibouti. The foreign military forces help make Djibouti a relatively safe nation among unstable neighbors: It is bordered by Eritrea in the north, Ethiopia in the west and south, and Somalia in the southeast.

The progressive international community has celebrated Djibouti for welcoming refugees despite facing its own problems at home, including high unemployment rates and significant poverty.

Vanessa J. Panaligan, an external relations officer for the refugee agency, said the agency is finalizing a “livelihoods strategy” that would help refugees develop skills to make them more competitive on the job market, which the Djibouti government opened to them last year.

“For the majority of refugees, the chances of returning home or being resettled elsewhere are slim,” Panaligan said. “So, we advocate for local integration as a durable solution. Livelihoods is a key part of that. Yemenis are notoriously hardworking and have a strong work ethic.”

The seed of the Yemeni civil war was the failed transition of executive power from Ali Abdullah Saleh to Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2012, a political crisis that led to high unemployment, food shortages and a separatist movement in the country’s south. In March 2015, the violence escalated drastically. Houthi rebels, loyal to Saleh and supported by Iran, took up arms against the government — forcing Hadi to flee. An international alliance, led by Saudi Arabia, launched airstrikes to quell the rebellion and reinstall Hadi’s government, but has been unable to take control of the north, including the capital city of San’a. Capitalizing on the anarchy, ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have increased terrorist attacks in Yemen.

Many see the Yemen crisis as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia for greater influence throughout the Middle East. The Saudi bombing campaign in Houthi-controlled territory has killed thousands of civilians and damaged Hodeidah’s port, which receives humanitarian relief. Although Yemen has not received as much media coverage as the conflicts in Syria or Iraq, the United States support for the Saudi campaign — including selling weapons and refueling bombers — has come under scrutiny.

Checking the damage in the aftermath of a reported airstrike on San’a by the Saudi-led coalition. (Photo: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images)

Human Rights Watch has called upon the U.S. to stop “rewarding Saudi war crimes with more weapons.” On its website, the advocacy group said,  “Human Rights Watch has documented 81 apparently unlawful coalition attacks since the conflict started in March 2015. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes have bombed civilian areas, including markets, schools, and hospitals, and have killed thousands of civilians.”

On March 20, the U.S. Senate voted 55-44 to reject a bipartisan resolution to withdraw U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen. A provision in the 1973 War Powers Act allows any senator to introduce legislation that would withdraw the U.S. military from an armed conflict that had not been authorized by Congress. It was a rare attempt by the Senate to limit the executive branch’s powers over armed conflict. During the Capitol Hill debate, President Trump hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office.

In a statement, Sen. Bernie Sanders, independent-Vt., who voted in favor of the resolution, accused Congress of yet again failing to ask hard questions as various administrations misled the U.S. into conflicts with awful results.

“The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, with U.S. support, has been a humanitarian disaster. Instead of supplying bombs and refueling capabilities, we should be doing everything possible to create a peaceful resolution to that civil war and provide humanitarian help,” Sanders said.

Ahead of the Senate vote, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis defended the United States support for Saudi Arabia as intended to hasten the end of hostilities through a U.N. resolution.

“New restrictions on this limited U.S. military support could increase civilian casualties, jeopardize cooperation with our partners on counter-terrorism and reduce our influence with the Saudis — all of which would further exacerbate the situation and humanitarian crisis,” Mattis wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on March 14.

A Yemeni child is checked for cholera in Hajjah province. (Photo: Stringer/AFP/Getty Images)

The consequences for Yemen’s civilian population have been devastating. Before the civil war, Yemen was already the poorest nation on the Arabian Peninsula. The violence has exacerbated longstanding problems stemming from years of poverty and poor governance.

The United Nations said an average of five children have been killed or injured each day since March 2015, and 11.3 million children — nearly every child in the country — need humanitarian assistance to survive. The relentless fighting led to the collapse of water and sanitation systems, creating an unprecedented cholera outbreak.

Altogether, more than 10,000 people are estimated to have died in the conflict and 3 million have been displaced.

With no end in sight to the conflict, the government of Djibouti is working with the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, other U.N. agencies and nongovernmental organizations to prepare for a potential emergency influx of refugees.

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