Yemen’s refugees pose a threat to Somalia

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As if Somalia wasn’t faced with enough challenges as of late, a new crisis is brewing on the horizon.

Some brief background: The fragile country of 10 million continues to be plagued by the terrorism of the Islamist group al-Shabab, is facing aserious threat to its financial lifeline due to banks shutting down the servicing of remittance flows from Somalis abroad, and is still facing endemic poverty — one in seven children die before their first birthday. Somalia, which suffered from civil strife and a total political collapse in the early 1990s, endured a catastrophic famine only a few years ago that killed 260,000 people.

But right now, according to Somali Foreign Minister Abdusalam Omer, “The biggest challenge is Yemen.”

Saudi Arabia’s airstrikes in March against Houthi rebels in Yemen have caused many civilians to start fleeing the country, with many traveling by sea to the breakaway region of Somaliland and the Puntland region. According to UNHCR, nearly a thousand people have arrived in Somalia from Yemen, including Yemenis. The agency is making contingency plans to to receive up to 100,000 refugees to Somalia in the next six months and 30,000 in Djibouti.

Since the political collapse in 1991, huge masses of Somalis have taken to the sea to seek refuge in Yemen. “We have 250,000 Somali refugees in Yemen who are under the care of UNHCR,” said Omer. “So now the situation is reversed, where we have to welcome [Yemenis]. They welcomed us when we were in need; they accepted our people. So we will accept their people.”

He continued: “But here is the problem. We don’t know who is coming back. The Somalis who are radicalized will come back. Yemenis who are radicalized by ISIS and Al-Qaeda will come back, and that is a big challenge, that will reverse the gains we have made.”

Indeed, African Union forces and U.S. airstrikes have severely undermined al-Shabab’s capacity to control large swaths of territory in Somalia. But the group (which Omer argued is actually weakening) is increasingly launching guerrilla-style attacks on soft targets, such as hotels and ministry buildings in the capital of Mogadishu. The group’s international profile has violently resurfaced, thanks to the gruesome attack it launched on a university in Garissa, Kenya, this month, that killed nearly 150 people, including 142 students. In the past two weeks in Somalia alone, 10 people were killed in an attack on Somalia’s education ministry, four UNICEF staff members were killed in a car bomb blast in Garowe, and a senior military officer was gunned down. Al-Shabab has claimed responsibility for all these attacks. As the terrorist group has reportedly been receiving strategy tips, weapons and fighters from al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, an uncontrolled flow of migration from Yemen could absolutely strain the regional effort against al-Shabab. However, many of the refugees are arriving in Somaliland and Puntland, regions that the Somali government doesn’t have full control over.

Additionally, Somalia’s weak economy and infrastructure can barely provide services for its own population, much less handle a flood of new refugees. According to the United Nations Development Program, about 857,000 Somalis are in need of “urgent and life saving assistance, and an additional 2 million are are on the margin of food insecurity.”

Omer said that the Somali government is appealing to the United States and other countries to support the UNHCR’s and the International Office for Migration’s efforts dealing with the influx of refugees from Yemen, and to assist in relocating refugees to coastal areas such as Djibouti. “There are already refugees as far as Kismayo, which is below the equator, so you can imagine, it’s a nervous time.”

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