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Rose Worden

Trump's 'sovereignty safeguards' leave Yemeni refugees for dead

Yemeni refugees fetch water at the Obock camp, which hosts nearly 2,800 refugees, Djibouti [AFP]

Date of publication: 30 January, 2018

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Comment: The US is opting out of global solutions to share responsibility for the burden of migration which it has promulgated, writes Rose Worden.
The third and latest version of the Trump administration's so-called travel ban went into force on 8 December 2017, impacting travel from eight countries - Iran, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela - as the Supreme Court prepared to take up the matter in coming weeks. 

Almost immediately, in Djibouti, several hundred visa applicants anticipating final clearance for their entry into the United States received denial notices, leaving them stranded.

For many migrants, the journey to the Horn of Africa, and daily life upon arrival are fraught. Djibouti is the lone coastal country across the Gulf of Aden to receive Yemeni refugees with US consular services, although its lava-baked landscape and extreme temperatures pose a challenge to those displaced there.

Refugees have arrived in a constant flow on the Djiboutian and Somaliland (the northern breakaway region of Somalia) coasts since 2015 when the Saudi-led, US-backed violent campaign to restore the Yemeni government from its Houthi captors began.

Since then, the situation in Yemen has deteriorated into the greatest humanitarian catastrophe in recent history according to UN agencies, reaching a death toll of 10,000 since 2015.

By November 2016, of the 166,658 who fled Yemen, 75,748 had arrived in the Horn countries of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan. 

Driven by an increase in numbers of refugees globally, all UN member states adopted the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants in 2016, as an instrument for sharing responsibility in mediating the global migration crisis.

Djibouti is the only coastal country across the Gulf of Aden to receive Yemeni refugees that also has US consular services

Within months, the United States exempted itself from the process established there, citing the concern that it breached US sovereignty.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has imposed a blockade on Yemen which has fueled the virulent spread of cholera and diphtheria, and contributed to the starvation of Yemenis surviving in bombed-out isolation from crucial resources.

President Trump has repeatedly prioritised curbing the influence of Iran over meaningfully addressing the situation in Yemen, as reflected in the United States' policy of cooperation towards Saudi Arabia.

Mere months after Trump publicly called on the kingdom to lift the blockade to allow humanitarian assistance into the country, the kingdom agreed to purchase seven billion dollars worth of precision munitions from the US, to continue its crippling bombing campaign there.

The territories most affected by the impacts of refugee flows generated by these hostilities must make deals with the same powerful regional actors for self-preservation.

Recent reports from the Washington Post and Middle East Eye have noted that western countries could learn a thing or two from Djibouti's benevolence as a host to the displaced.

[Click to enlarge]

But, while the United States and other western countries rely on their sovereignty as a rationale for tightening border security and emphasising return as a primary goal for refugees, what is being displayed is not the humanitarian heart of the Djiboutian people as much as a clear strategy of containment being implemented by stronger powers.

Horn countries have largely lacked the capacity and agency to upset the status quo or form durable solutions without direct assistance, whether from other governments or international organisations.

Djibouti has created viability as home of the only permanent US military base on the African continent, for which it receives $63 million per year from the US government on a 10 year lease, and hosts military bases for France, Italy, Spain, Japan, and recently, China, through various arrangements.

With the opening of its new regional base, China has agreed to provide economic aid to the country. Djibouti is currently wrapping up negotiations with Saudi Arabia for its new military base, highlighting its conundrum of exchanging geostrategic access for economic assistance in a volatile security context.

The Somaliland territory, which experiences cyclical drought including a recent famine that crippled its primary industry and saw 80 percent of livestock perish, lacks international recognition and is therefore precluded from appealing to the international community.

President Trump has repeatedly prioritised curbing the influence of Iran over meaningfully addressing the situation in Yemen

Instead, Somaliland has also forged regional ties to bolster its profile as an entity independent from the Somali state, pulling its government further into Saudi Arabia's orbit.

The United Arab Emirates, a key partner in the Saudi campaign against the Houthis, has secured an agreement to install a military base on the Somaliland coast and modernise its massive Berbera port.

President of Somalia, Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (known as Farmajo), has met on several occasions with members of the Saudi royal family, but remained neutral in the blockade against Qatar, and declined a bribe worth $80 million.

While the United States opts out of global solutions to share responsibility for the burden of migration which it has promulgated, international organisations operate as the primary structures under which the swelling population of the displaced receive basic protection of their rights. 

This dynamic is further complicated in the region at an organisational level, where the UNHCR designates most of those fleeing from Yemen to Somaliland as "returnees" rather than "refugees" who initially fled from Somalia to Yemen.

The organisation's most recent appeal includes assistance for 50,000 returnees from Yemen, under its limited mandate for returnees, increasing the burden on the extremely low capacity of the Somaliland government to engage in resettlement.

While global instruments continue to modernise to address the tentacular problems of migration, low-capacity countries in the Horn of Africa will remain catchments for those seeking refuge - governed by humanitarian law, driven into their predicament by those holding power.

Rose Worden is a researcher and writer based in New York. She holds a Master's Degree in International Affairs from The New School and is focused on development and security in the Horn of Africa and MENA.

Follow her on Twitter @rswrdn

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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