With severe drought and famine devastating much of the Horn of Africa it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture. Local governments seem incapable of mastering any form of forward strategy when it comes to water capture and management, and so yet we receive fitful news of the havoc being wreaked on both man and beast. Whilst the priority needs to be saving lives, when the worst is past legitimate questions should be asked about the near total absence of any contingency and foresight planning.
Already the region is stretched in regards to resources, with many Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) left vulnerable and largely neglected. In recent months the numbers of refugees have risen still further, this time with Somalis and others fleeing conflict-ravaged Yemen. Yemen’s close proximity to the Horn of Africa means that there are long established commercial, cultural and family ties. When the situation in Somalia was at its nadir it was to Yemen that many Somalis fled and found sanctuary, now as much of Yemen appears close to imploding these same Somalis are in a desperate situation and naturally yearn to return to their homeland. Precise numbers remain decidedly unclear, that said, recent estimates put the numbers of ethnic Somalis in Yemen at over 1 million, with the vast majority residing in Sana’a and Aden – the areas of greatest danger. The situation for Somali and Yemeni alike in much of Yemen is bleak indeed, with malnutrition being commonplace. NGO activity is near non-existent and support structures such as they were have either been exhausted or have completely broken down.
As if this were not bad enough, recent military interventions have been largely indiscriminate in nature, with civilians bearing the brunt of these. The infrastructure, such as it is, has been severely damaged with hospitals, schools and water and sewage pipes having been damaged. Unclean water in a land where temperatures regularly reach 40 degrees celsius and more is a sure recipe for cholera and the like. With the international community having withdrawn from the Yemen, accurate data is hard to come by, but even current estimated figures of casualties and deaths is likely to be on the conservative side. Food and medicine shortages are a daily occurrence, add to this the national trauma for a sizeable percentage of the people in Yemen and then we start to develop some idea of the scale of the disaster that is taking place. It is worth remembering that it has been estimated that about four fifths of Yemen’s population of 27 million require some form of humanitarian assistance.
The Al Qaeda/Islamic Militant dimension tends to skew the international response, instead of viewing civilians as precisely that, they are either viewed as terrorists, collaborators or those that at best should be deemed suspect. This simplistic approach dooms innocent people to suffer further. Whilst it is perfectly reasonable to expect screening of those traveling to and from Yemen, the wider world must not lose sight of the fact that it is the Yemenis and Somali refugees who are the greatest victims of both terror and the Saudi coalition bombings.
Internally in Yemen the picture remains a confused one, although in the Al Mahrah Governate (an area of 82, 405 square kilometres) bordering Oman, the situation on the ground is relatively peaceful, that said, the region is receiving precious little external help to cope with the influx of refugees. The UNHCR has estimated that over two and a quarter million people are displaced internally in Yemen. Socotra, Yemen’s equivalent of the Galapagos Island, remains remarkably tranquil, apart that is for rumours that various Arab governments have designs on it with a view to “developing” the tourist industry.
As things stand there is likely to be a constant stream of people fleeing Yemen, making their way to Djibouti, Somaliland, Puntland and other possible places of perceived safety. The journey is a perilous one, as illustrated by the murderous attack in the Bab-el- Mandeb (Gate of Grief) Strait by an Saudi-coalition Apache helicopter gunship in March this year that resulted in the deaths of some 40 Somalis sea borne refugees. For all the dangers the flow of refugees looks set to continue and whether these people be Yemeni or Somali they desperately need help and practical support, support which has been sadly lacking in the main.
Should Yemen remain unstable the situation for the Horn will remain problematic. It is imperative that any policy towards the Horn of Africa factors in Yemen with a view to normalising the situation. Until this is done it is extremely unlikely that any meaningful peace will be established, one that allows cordial interaction across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.
Mark T. Jones