A look into Yemen's Kharaz Refugee Camp

A look into Yemens Kharaz Refugee Camp

In the South-West of Yemen, thousands of refugees from the Horn of Africa have spent decades, married and had children, without ever leaving the camp that has become home. Reporter Amanda Fisher and photographer Leslie Pableo visit the people in this holding cell — most of whom have no way of leaving.

By Amanda Fisher

Published: Mon 16 Dec 2013, 1:13 AM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 5:32 PM

As we drive along the hot dusty road to South Yemen’s remote Kharaz Refugee Camp, the sand, with abject disregard to the path hoed by man, blows a continual sheet over the tarmac. Every few miles along the baking highway, villagers from the nearby sparsely-populated settlements tirelessly shovel rogue grains — in the hopes of collecting a few spare riyals from passing cars — only to watch the obstinate specks return in the next gust of wind.

Newly arrived refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia. Photographs by Leslie Pableo.

The camp, an old military barracks in the middle of nowhere, lies two hours’ west of the one-time British seaport Aden, which later became the capital of the former People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen. Kharaz, which opened in 1991, is home to more than 16,000 refugees, mostly from Somalia and Ethiopia. The camp is administered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which works in tandem with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and other local non-governmental organisations to manage the needs of the refugees.

But the camp is far from the beacon of opportunity the refugees were hoping for when they risked their lives boarding the perilous boats that ferried them north through the treacherous, shark-infested Gulf of Aden.

Somalian refugee Fatma Hassan, 33, has not left Kharaz Camp since she arrived 17 years ago. She ran away as a teenage bride, just turned 17, illegally stowing away with her husband in order to escape the brutal Somalian Civil War that has now been raging for 22 years.

Ethiopian boys playing under a tree at Al Kharaz refugee camp, Aden, Yemen.

Hassan, whose eight children were born in the camp, says she and her husband had no idea where they were going when they left Somalian shores.

“We wanted to go to Saudi Arabia but we didn’t have the money, so we came here.”

Life is not easy inside the camp, she says, and money is thin on the ground. Like everyone else in her family, she has not been able to find a job.

“If we had the possibility to leave here, and the power and the money, we would.”

She says many residents are afflicted by hunger, despite the food rations.

“We get full because (we eat three meals each day), but the food doesn’t last the whole month. When it reaches the middle of the month, it’s finished.”

Hassan says her family must borrow food rations from others, in a continuous cycle of food debt.

“We don’t have money but we take a ration and when the ration is finished we take another ration but at the end of the month (when the new rations are given out) we have to return back the food we were given.”

An Ethiopian family sharing meal at Al Kharaz refugee camp.

Each refugee above the age of six months is given a monthly food allowance of 9 kilograms of wheat flour, 4.5kgs of rice, 1.8kgs of pulses, 600 grams of sugar, 900 millilitres of vegetable oil, 15g of salt, “and occasionally 2kgs of dates,” according to the WFP office in Aden.

A man frequents the camp selling vegetables, which refugees can buy with their oil and other commodities.

“We need more basics when we’re exchanging flour for the vegetables,” the helpless mother says.

Less often, a man comes to the camp to sell meat - “but it’s too expensive for most people”. Hassan says to get enough meat, refugees must exchange 3kg of flour.

WFP Yemen Head of External Relations Robin Lodge explains each food basket is calculated on the basis of the 2,100 calories per day most humans need.

“It includes fortified wheat flour, pulses, fortified vegetable oil and salt, and thus contains enough protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and other micronutrients to keep people healthy. Every registered refugee receives this ration and distributions are monitored by WFP.”

Lodge says it is not practical or cost-justifiable for WFP — itself reliant on aid money to feed nearly 100 million people around the world — to supply fresh meat and vegetables.

“However, the WFP ration is supplemented on an irregular basis with food provided by UNHCR and (other) NGOs, which includes fresh vegetables.”

The WFP is looking to introduce a “cash component” for about 57,000 food insecure households in Yemen, to give a degree of choice. This, however, will not cover refugees.

But at the camp there are more concerns than just food.

The state of education is a hornet’s nest. The local primary school has been closed for months, after a recent — but allegedly frequent — round of agression from neighbouring Yemeni villagers.

The refugees say they turned up at the school with guns, firing into the air, causing the children to flee - something that also happens often around the camp itself. The school has been closed ever since.

The UNHCR says the dispute happened after some of the locals missed out on teaching positions. This caused tension and the violent reaction that sent local authorities and the UNHCR into desperate negotiations, after the villagers even blocked vehicles from delivering services such as food for two weeks, eventually coming up with other jobs to molify the community. However, the refugees, who say the yearly stand-offs close the school for several weeks, are now refusing to send their children to school until authorities guarantee more protection.

They also want a commitment of more job and education opportunities for their youth, and an assurance more teachers will be employed from the refugee camp. The refugees estimate only 10 per cent are in work, with most taking on odd jobs around the camp such as food distribution.

Hassan says she wants her children to learn to speak English and hopes they will one day move on from the camp. “We’re dreaming of a better future for ourselves and our children.”

But she’s pleased she is no longer in Somalia “because...I want to feel safe and happy”.

“My mother is dead and I have my father and three sisters and I don’t know where they are.”

As we talk scores of residents surround us, eager to show their various ailments and lament their situation. Bullets are lodged in knees, feet and skulls, and one man shows me the sole of his foot where a bullet has exited. He pulls the foot apart, revealing a fleshy hole, centimetres deep.

There is an on-site clinic, but the refugees say it is under-staffed and under-resourced.

One man, who has Hepatitis C and two bullets embedded in his leg, which cannot be removed due to his precarious health, explains: “If you have a stomach problem, they give you medicine for your eyes” — a remark greeted by his campmates with appreciative laughter.

The Somalian man, who arrived in the camp in 1994, says residents have no security or protection from the surrounding villagers.

“I’m not happy here, here we don’t have education, we don’t have a life, we don’t have a future. We’re living the life of a dog.”

Of more concern is a story from one woman who says in May her eight-year-old son was hit in the back by a falling bullet after an episode of intimidation and airborne gunfire from the villagers. The bullet was removed but caused a lot of bleeding. While his wounds have healed, it has left him psychologically scarred, she says. The skirmishes happen three to four times a year, and the refugees say at least five children have been wounded this way.

Another story, which UNHCR was unable to verify, is told about a woman who was shot and left paralysed by security in 2002, after the camp residents protested the attempted rape of another women by a security guard.

After being swamped by the endless tales of woe, we retreat to the camp office looking for answers.

Kharaz Camp associate protection officer Ahmed Ali, a sympathetic Sudanese man from Darfur who has been at the camp only since September, listens patiently to the complaints relayed over the noise of a woman’s pained wails.

He says some refugees have better lives than others. Some find work, returning when it dries up; others don’t.

“The majority are always in the camp because they don’t have shelter...UNHCR is always looking for durable solutions.”

The goal is to keep refugees until their situation “normalises”. There are three ways out: resettlement to other countries; repatriation home; and local integration.

While the refugees can leave at any time, the economic opportunities in Yemen are slim — wholly aside from their residential status.

Ali says resettlement to other countries was working in a small number of cases until 2010, when the security situation in Yemen destabilised. Countries that were accepting refugees are no longer sending representatives to Yemen to conduct necessary interviews with potential cases.

“This is what we are looking for (to resume) because it will solve a lot of problems, at least for individual, critical cases.”

The second and third options are equally futile.

“Somalia is not secure...(refugees) came here because they did not get safety and security and protection, so we’re not going to send them back.”

While local integration is the “number one objective”, the Yemeni government, riddled with its own issues of internally displaced people and ongoing conflict, is not settling refugees.

But Ali comes back to the obvious point: “To have them here is better than having them in Somalia.”

He defends the amount of food distributed but “many people say it is not enough and ask to increase (the rations), especially the people who don’t have jobs. In Yemen to get a job, it’s not very easy”.

Ali says while everyone would like to increase food rations, that is entirely dependent on foreign aid as the organisations must work within their means, with an ever-increasing number of refugees.

Each day as many as 35 new people come to the camp, empty-handed, often robbed at sea, after braving the three-day journey from Djibouti where the boats leave.

To these woes of stretched resources is the added problem of resentment from local communities, to whom the influx of bodies are competition for jobs.

“It’s not an issue only in Kharaz, it’s the whole of Yemen. Whichever community you go into the communities have their own government and the government has its own mentality.”

And UNHCR cannot police the behavior, when even the police often can’t, Ali says.

“Everybody has a gun (in Yemen). If the police say ‘No, you can’t do this’, they will shoot back. We are not a government, we are a humanitarian agency.”

You get a sense of a man being pulled in as many different directions as there are degrees in a circle.

“I’ve been working and not only going after this school issue (to get children back to school), but we are dealing with security issues...due to threats to the camp from the villagers...I’m dealing with many different groups. Just God helps me.”

As we leave Ali’s office the woman whose tears punctuated our conversation is leaving the camp with police. Faadumo Jama is off to make a complaint against her husband, a drunk, who she found trying to sell her 11-year-old daughter’s virginity for alcohol. Four years earlier, she says, he was successful with an elder daughter.

On the drive back, the grains of sand have returned to the road. But, with shovel at hand, the villagers continue their endless task.


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