May 23, 2015 Updated: May 23, 2015 07:17 PM
A Yemeni boy in the Markazi refugee camp near Obock, Djibouti. The camp and a nearby unfinished orphanage are home to about 1,000 Yemeni refugees. The camp still lacks basic services like schools and playgrounds for children. Maan Y Ahmed for The National
OBOCK, Djibouti // Every day Mohammed Al Assar treks five kilometres in the scorching heat down a lonely desert road that takes him from the refugee camp in which he resides to the hardscrabble Djiboutian town of Obock.
There he is able to charge his phone, allowing him to check in with loved ones and get the latest news from Yemen. When he is done, the 25-year-old walks back to the stifling, bare tent he shares with four other men. Sweaty, he washes off with water he hauls from a collection point before falling asleep after another long day in exile.
He jokes that the exercise of walking 10km a day will get him in good shape and that the relentless sunshine will give him a good tan. As a well-travelled, trilingual and well-educated young man, he never envisioned himself in a refugee camp in sub-saharan africa. But then the war happened.
At its closest point, the small, impoverished nation of Djibouti is just 32km from Yemen. When Yemen’s conflict sharply deteriorated in March, some started eyeing Djibouti as a potential refuge. But while they have escaped air strikes, snipers and shortages of food, fuel and other basic supplies, they have arrived in a poor country with limited resources where life is much more difficult than it was in pre-war Yemen.
According to the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR, more than 4,000 Yemenis had arrived in Djibouti by early May. About 1,000 of those refugees live in a tent-filled refugee camp and unfinished orphanage near Obock, a four-hour drive or one-hour speedboat ride from Djibouti City, where the vast majority of the country’s population lives.
The UN is making preparations to take in 15,000 Yemeni refugees in the next six months.
To receive aid from the UN, refugees are required to live in one of these spartan facilities. Thousands of others are trying to survive on their own in Djibouti City, where many see their money quickly evaporating.
Many of the refugees in Obock come from a well-educated, professional class. Some speak English with American and British accents from long stints living in the West.
“For them it’s quite a shock because three weeks ago they were living in an apartment with A/C and now they find themselves in a refugee camp living in tents,” said Marie-Claire Sowinetz, an external relations officer with UNHCR in Djibouti.
There is no electricity in the camp. To buy vegetables, fruit, meat and other foods not included in UN aid packs requires a five-kilometre slog to town. Refugees say hyenas, monkeys, snakes, scorpions and spiders wander through their dusty living space.
“Why did they put us here away from the city of Djibouti? Are we terrorists? We came here because of terrorists,” said Imad Yahya, 20, from Aden. “They treat us like we are bad people.”
Some of the refugees are already missing Yemen at war. Others have advised family members not to join them in Djibouti.
“In Yemen life is difficult, here we find life more difficult. We have war there, but I think life in Yemen is better,” said Mohammad Amer, a 42-year-old refugee from Sanaa.
Djibouti has opened its doors to Yemeni refugees, but there is only so much it can do. The country has seen massive foreign investment in recent years due to its strategic location and port facilities, but it is still mired in extreme poverty.
Nearly 60 per cent of the population is unemployed and life expectancy at birth is 47 years. Djibouti was facing insurmountable problems before the war in Yemen and if Yemenis stay here for a long time, it is unlikely they will be able to find jobs and make a comfortable life for themselves here.
About 3,000 refugees have tried their luck living outside the camp, but that proves both difficult and expensive. In the capital, affordable hotels are fully booked due to the refugee crisis. Some are taking advantage of the new arrivals.
At a mid-range hotel in Djibouti City last week, a minivan piled high with luggage dropped off 15 women and children fleeing from Ibb. They were desperate for a place to rest. The hotel told them they could have a room — for only two hours — for a price.
Later that day the hotel decided they did in fact have room and allowed the family to take two rooms. When they checked out two days later, they were handed a bill for US$2,400 (Dh8,815). The hotel had decided to charge them by the person, rather than by the room, for a stay where most slept on the floor.
“Life is quite expensive” in Djibouti said Ms Sowinetz, the UNCHR representative. “We expect after a certain time they [many refugees] will approach us and register as refugees.”
For fresh arrivals, the escape from the war is still euphoric despite the harsh living conditions presented by Djibouti.
Faiza Mohammad arrived on a boat from Aden last Tuesday with her brother after a voyage of more than 12 hours. Awaiting a spot in one of the UNHCR facilities in Obock, they were settled in a small International Organisation for Migration compound, designed for small numbers, across the street from the refugee camp.
“I don’t know when I will eat or when I will sleep, but at least there aren’t bombs,” she said. Here in Djibouti “we’re like animals: we eat and we sleep”.
At the start of the war in March, Ms Mohammad thought the war would be quick and they would wait it out. As it wore on, she started getting more desperate to leave fearing that anti-Houthi forces in Aden would be unable to hold the line. She was terrified that their boat would be targeted by snipers and rocket fire as they pulled out of the port after hearing stories of other vessels coming under fire.
Returning is not an option for Ms Mohammad: she says Houthi snipers are not distinguishing civilians from fighters in the city and is frightened that massacres will be carried out if the rebels advance further.
“If you walk in the street, if you go to buy anything, you think ‘I will not get back to my home,’” she said. “The Houthis say ‘kill the kuffar [infidels]’ – we say there are no kuffar in Yemen. They say we are all takfiris and Daesh,” she added, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.
Many here view their stay as temporary and are trying to get relocated to a third country, but a blue Yemeni passport is next to useless in the world as only 32 nations allow Yemenis entrance without prior acquisition of a visa. And many of those nations are far away and impoverished.
Jordan and Algeria are the only Arab countries where Yemenis do not require a visa. Egypt allows Yemenis to enter without a visa only if they are younger than 17 or older than 60.
Mr Al Assar and his brother acquired visas to travel to Ethiopia before leaving Yemen last month. But when they flew from Djibouti to Addis Ababa, they were turned back by immigration officers.
Now he is hoping to get a visa to the United States, where his sister lives. If that does not work, he may try to get to India, where he studied computer science in Pune before moving to Sanaa and becoming a taxi driver last year.
While Yemeni refugees hope that they will soon leave the refugee camps and overpriced Djibouti hotels behind and settle in western countries, there’s little hope for some of the camp’s non-Yemeni refugees who were already seeking refuge in Yemen when the war began.
Idriss Ismael Fadel, 56, fled to Yemen from his native Eritrea in 1993 after several of his friends disappeared and others became political prisoners. He moved to a refugee camp in Taez and started a new life convinced that there was no way he could safely go back to Eritrea while the government that had persecuted his friends stayed in power.
But fighting in Taez forced him back across the sea to a refugee camp just a few hours down the road from the country he first fled.
“We don’t have any particular plans, we are just waiting,” he said. “It’s exhausting. We don’t have any hope.”