Friday, January 22, 2010

Yemen: Awareness can bring change

Source: Refugees International (RI) - When it was revealed last month that the young Nigerian who attempted to blow up a Detroit-bound plane had trained in Yemen, the American media was immediately debating whether Yemen constituted a third front on the war on terror. (And also explaining where Yemen was, as comedian Jon Stewart humorously pointed out).

Yemen's fragility should not come as a surprise to anyone. When I visited the country in March 2008, as part of a Refugees International assessment of the humanitarian situation of Somali refugees, many diplomats and UN officials were ringing alarm bells. In our report, we argued that the conflict in the north (which has displaced more than 175,000 people,) and the arrival of large numbers of economic migrants and refugees were potentially destabilizing factors. We added that as "a country of geo-strategic importance [...] Yemen shoulders a heavy burden which the international community and UN agencies should do more to alleviate, for both humanitarian and security reasons."

Yet very little was done. The UN and the international community have provided minimum support to the country. This lack of commitment was apparent in the low budgets, staffing levels (and morale) in international agencies. The interest level wasn't high back in Washington, DC, either. An event on Capitol Hill in November on political developments in Yemen, drew about twenty people, mostly interns from various Congressional offices. Ten years after the U.S.S. Cole bombing, Yemen was no longer a priority.

The renewed attention is positive then – if it translates into real policy changes and not just empty announcements to score political points. Bilateral aid will be an important component of any assistance package, and should include strong support for refugee programs. Currently more than 160,000 refugees reside in Yemen, mostly from south central Somalia. Supporting refugee services, especially in urban areas, would not only ease the burden on Yemeni social services, but also counter the lure of extremism. Indeed, a small minority of Somali refugees seem to have been implicated with hard line militants in Somalia.

Some trends are going in the right direction. From a budget of less than $4 million in 2007, UNHCR is appealing for $28 million in 2010, $22 million of which is earmarked for refugee programs. It is important that the international community, and in particular the U.S., seize this renewed attention on Yemen as an opportunity to address some of the country's most pressing destabilizing factors.

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