In recent months, thousands of Ethiopians living in Yemen, have been returned to Africa. Members of Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group, the Oromo, say they are systematically abused in Ethiopia and they travel to Yemen out of fear for their lives. But Yemeni and Ethiopian officials say they are in search of better jobs, not in fear of political persecution.
In Yemen, tens of thousands of Africans arrive on the beaches every year. Some come half-alive after being dumped off-shore by smugglers, fleeing gunfire from Yemeni troops. Many do not survive the journey.
The Yemeni government calls many of those coming from Ethiopia, “infiltrators” and “sneakers” and regularly announces mass arrests, and plans for deportations.
In the past year, the number of people fleeing the Horn of Africa for Yemen has risen dramatically, mostly because of a spike in the number of people coming from Ethiopia.
Aid workers say most of the Ethiopians arriving in Yemen are ethnic Oromos, complaining of political persecution. But Ethiopian officials say there is no persecution in Ethiopia against the Oromos.
This man says he fled Ethiopia after he broke out of prison by hiding inside a sewage-pit. He, like his fellow Oromo community leaders in Yemen, says he was persecuted at home. He says the Oromo make up almost half the country’s population. He says he was arrested because the Ethiopian government suspected him of supporting the Oromo Liberation Front.
The Oromo Liberation Front is an armed separatist group that claims the Oromo are denied basic human rights by the ruling party.
Human Rights Watch says Ethiopia has a well-founded fear of terrorist attacks from separatist groups, but regularly uses this fear as an excuse to silence peaceful opposition. The Ethiopian government considers OLF members criminals, and charges them with attacking civilian targets, like buses and schools.
Oromo activists claim because of this conflict, ordinary Oromo people are arrested arbitrarily, tortured and sometimes killed. Many flee to neighboring countries to seek political asylum.
The U.N. refugee agency has acknowledged more than 3,000 Ethiopians as legitimate political refugees In Yemen. But like the Yemeni government, UNHCR protection officer Samer Haddadin says most of the Ethiopians that come to Yemen are fleeing poverty and drought, and seeking jobs, not political asylum.
“Most of the people are coming because of economic hardship,” he said. “It is not a bad reason to leave your country, but it is not a good reason to ask the state of asylum to accept them as refugees.”
Haddadin says the UNHCR knows the Yemeni government regularly arrests and deports large numbers of Ethiopians, without giving them a chance to present their case for asylum.
But according to the Ethiopian ambassador in Yemen, Tawfik Abdullahi Ahmed, the point is moot. He says peaceful opposition political parties are legal and common in Ethiopia, so none of the new arrivals are legitimately seeking asylum.
Ahmed says migration from Ethiopia to Yemen is business, not politics. He says people coming to Yemen from his country are victims of human traffickers, who convince them that they can find passage to rich Gulf states like Saudi Arabia. Once in Yemen, many Ethiopians elect to go home, when they realize they cannot reach their destination.
But refugees say the claims Africans who arrive on Yemeni beaches choose to go home are false. Detainees are given a choice between a Yemeni prison and deportation, and often “volunteer” to return.
Other’s say it is not just ethnic-Oromo people in Ethiopia that are being persecuted. Sitting on the floor in her home in Basateen, a sprawling slum in south Yemen, where thousands of African refugees live, Aya says other, smaller ethnic minority groups face similar problems in Ethiopia. She says troubles in Ethiopia are often kept quiet abroad. But at home, Aya says, everyone believes it is not safe to speak against the government.