When a poor and desperate soul flees conflict and poverty in his country only to end up in one that is worse off, he is just jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
Cruel as it sounds, this was what happened when a Somali fled his country and ended up in Yemen, a country embroiled in civil war and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.
No thanks to the accident of birth, these people find themselves in two of the more than 20 failed states of this world, places where terrorists, drug cartels, warlords and gangs roam freely, with some even controlling significant chunks of territory.
Somalia, located in the Horn of Africa, is continuously in a state of conflict.
Since Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown in a military coup in 1991, the country has been in free fall, with clan-based armed factions and warlords “running” the country, instead of a legitimate government, making it the perfect environment for Islamist terrorist groups such as Al Shabab, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda, to be in control of significant parts of the country at various times.
It is no wonder that this vicious cycle of armed conflict, lack of livelihoods, poverty and restlessness among young men has spun out of control, leading to this phenomenon we call a “failed state”.
Safe haven for asylum seekers
Refugees or asylum seekers tend to cross borders on foot to seek safety and security.
The hundreds of UN staff involved in the “deep field” ensure that asylum seekers receive their due rights.
Once they get the green light, they are moved into refugee camps that have been constructed by our engineers.
These camps are just little cities with tens of thousands or sometimes, even hundreds of thousands, of inhabitants living in tents. There are water and sanitation systems, clinics and even schools.
I have often marvelled at the skills and dedication of the staff who face the most adverse conditions; clearing forests and dealing with snakes and wild animals to clear the land for these camps.
On one occasion in 2007, I visited a very remote Somali refugee camp located in a Yemeni desert with the driest, most windswept and sandiest conditions.
Working with refugees is not a joyous undertaking. Most of them would have walked for months or taken dangerous boat rides and some could have been exploited by unscrupulous human traffickers.
Pacifying an angry crowd
On the occasion when I visited the refugee camp, where my team and I had a meeting with our on-ground staff and refugee leaders, events took a sudden turn when we were about to leave.
Hundreds of the refugees surrounded my team and I when we were about to leave. They just refused to allow us through the gates.
It happened so quickly. The mob surrounded our cars and pounded on the hood, clearly angry.
For once, I felt a sense of panic. We were six or seven against hundreds of them.
I quickly recalled the training I had for such crisis situations and consulted with my staff, especially those involved in security.
We slowly got out of our SUVs and through an interpreter, I told the refugees that we were in no position to discuss anything in such chaos. I asked them to sit down to talk about their problems, a technique used to exert a measure of control over chaotic crowds.
It took five to 10 minutes for them to sit down. I asked them to elect a man or woman to confer with my team and I, away from the crowd.
I had to specifically include a woman as a choice for spokesperson given that in traditional societies, they have no voice nor role.
After a noisy discussion among themselves, they picked three representatives, one of whom was a woman.
I should point out that it is purely for practical reasons that we needed to hear a woman’s articulation of the needs of more than half the population: women and the children.
In the shade of a tent, they talked about their grievances — bad food, insufficient food, lack of medicines for children. They also asked about their requests for asylum in a third country.
I told them that it would take time to address their request for asylum but on the other matters, I asked for a monitoring committee to be formed, comprising representatives from among the refugee leaders and our staff on the ground. I also promised to check in on this in a couple of weeks.
After some clarifications the three representatives seemed satisfied. They emerged from the tent and shared the news with their fellow refugees.
After a few minutes and more discussion, they seemed satisfied, moved aside to make way for the motorcade and we were on our way, waving vigorously and wishing them well.
Another good day at work!
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.