Hargeisa, Somaliland – The conflict in Yemen has driven thousands of refugees across the Gulf of Aden to Somaliland placing a great financial and social strain on the fragile region.
Since the war escalated in March, close to 5,000 refugees – as of mid-June – have landed in Somaliland, which declared itself a nation in 1991 but is still recognised only as an autonomous region of Somalia by the international community.
The conflict has also damaged Somaliland’s vital livestock trade. As the Eid Al Fitr holiday approaches, a time when exports to Yemen and the Arabian Gulf hit their peak, the industry is bracing for severe losses.
The refugees arriving here are Yemenis as well as Somalis who had fled to Yemen to escape the conflicts that tore apart their country.
Both groups often feel forsaken among Somaliland’s population of 3.5 million.
“They keep shouting at us and asking ‘What can you do for us?’” said Hussam Al Eyashi, who along with other members of the Yemeni community in Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, has been assisting those escaping the war.
The former accountant, who has lived in Somaliland for five years and until recently was the head of the Yemen Community in Somaliland Centre, admits there is not much he can do to help.
Recently, he received a call from a doctor at the Hargeisa International Hospital whose patient, Ahlam Yaslam Omar, had arrived from Yemen a week earlier and was suffering from abdominal bleeding. The doctors said they were no longer able to keep treating her and Mr Al Eyashi set about trying to find another hospital.
The 66-year-old left her home in the city of Taez on May 26, boarding a boat to leave Yemen’s deepening crisis behind. Her health began to plummet during the 50 hours at sea crossing the Gulf of Aden.
At the hospital, her four children, fearing their mother would pass away, scrambled to find a country that would accept her. Somaliland’s unrecognised status as a nation means there are no embassies in the capital to issue visas. In a rush to get to a hospital, Ms Omar had failed to register as a refugee upon arrival, so the United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, was unable to assist her.
Eventually, after much bureaucracy, she was able to fly to Djibouti for treatment. Mr Al Eyashi said her case highlighted the challenges faced by the refugees relying on overstretched community support.
“Everybody is doing as much as he can,” he said. “Everyone has two or three families living with them.”
The majority of the refugees have roots in southern and central Somalia, an area still overshadowed by extreme poverty, clan violence and the brutal militant group, Al Shabab.
Refugees with Yemeni passports, like Ms Omar, make up a smaller number of the influx but are close to hitting the 1,000 mark, according to the UNHCR.
While Somaliland’s comparative stability is an attractive alternative to Somalia or the collapsing infrastructure in Yemen, the region’s own challenges have proven tough for those seeking a temporary refuge.
The UNHCR together with other aid agencies is supplying travel stipends for those that need help reaching their next destination.
The refugees “face a hard decision of where to go next”, said Abdirisaq Mohamed Saed, the head of the international cooperation department at Somaliland’s foreign ministry. “It’s a tough question as to where to live. They need consultation.”
But the Somaliland government itself faces an even bigger problem. The interruption of shipping in the Gulf of Aden because of the conflict has badly affected exports of livestock – the backbone of Somaliland’s economy, accounting for 40 per cent of its GDP. After Saudi Arabia, Yemen was Somaliland’s second largest importer of animals.
While the Saudi-led coalition fighting to defeat the Houthi rebels appeared to be easing its naval blockade, according to traders, the continuing violence makes ships hesitant to enter ports and has left consumers in Yemen without money to purchase the produce.
“It has collapsed our cattle market,” said Faisal Abdihassan, an employee at a livestock export company in the city of Berbera.
[quote]“The government relies on [trade] for taxes. The people rely on it for employment and trade profits,” said Ali Omar, manager of Berbera’s port. “We don’t know how to accommodate this [loss] yet. Even if the war stops today, trade will take years to build up again.”[/quote]
The director of planning at the finance ministry, Weli Daud Egal, said the government was expected to lose US$7 million (Dh27.5m) for the year in import and export taxes from trade with Yemen. This is about 4 per cent of the central government’s 2015 budget. He estimated a $250m loss for the private sector. Mr Egal said the government is still discussing ways to make up for this significant revenue deficit.
Other businesses reliant on Yemen say they are coping despite considerable financial setbacks.
Ahmed Harbi, the co-owner of Al Harbi Trading and Shipping, is the Somaliland agent for the Hayel Saeed Anam group, Yemen’s most well-known manufacturing company. Mr Harbi said he lost about half of his import business since the war escalated.
Before the war, Mr Harbi had four boats travelling to Yemen each month to bring back products such as soaps and confectionery. Now, he is lucky if one boat can bring products. Mr Harbi said it was just too dangerous for ships to travel near Yemen’s coast.
Still, Mr Harbi counts his blessings. His counterparts in Yemen have it worse, he said.
[quote]“They are tough people. They are still trying to work. I wonder how they do that.”[/quote]
Weli Daud Egal, Somaliland’s director of planning at the finance ministry, was killed in a car accident on June 28, shortly after being interviewed for this story.