Edris Abdulla Ahmad has every reason to look unhappy. He and his family left their home in Eritrea last September and sailed to Yemen in the hope of using the poverty-stricken country as a transit point to reach a more “stable and prosperous” country.
Leaning against a wall in Sanaa’s al-Safia district, Ahmad fled his home because of poor salaries and compulsory military service and has been living in Yemen since late 2012.
Ahmad and his 15 children from two wives were engulfed with sadness when Yemeni officials and the UN agency UNHCR informed them that they would not be resettled in other countries.
“We fled poverty, pressure from [the Eritrean] government and compulsory military service,” he lamented.
Despite not being involved in any political activities, the stranded refugees claim that “Eritreans agents” in Yemen have attempted many times to kidnap some of them in order to return them to Eritrea.
“If the Eritrean government captured us, they will throw us in prison for good,” he said.
Ten of his children who went to school in his hometown have now dropped out, wasting their time in the streets of Sanaa.
“We need money, drinking water and milk for my children. I do not mind living in any country other than Yemen, Sudan and Ethiopia,” he said.
Omer Ali Abu Baker, a 36-year-old from the port city of Massawa, introduced himself as the leader of the group whose job was to liaise with the UN agency on behalf of the refugees.
Abu Baker told Al Jazeera that he had to travel hundreds of miles between two Eritrean cities to escape to Yemen.
“We fled from tyranny in Eritrea. The trip was risky and we were scared that the Eritreans might catch us,” he said.
An estimated 216 refugees, including 15 women and 18 children, are now living in the same camping area. African migrants who land in Yemen are usually accommodated in large refugee camps such as Kharaz in southern Yemen.
These Eritreans arrived in Yemen at different times. They began sailing to Yemen from late 2012 to late 2013.
“Whenever a new group of migrants reach the Yemeni coast of the Red Sea, the Yemenis take them to Hodeida prison,” Abu Baker said.
Yemeni police told the new arrivals that the prison of the port city of Hodeida is the safest place where they cannot be reached by the Eritreans or human traffickers.
“We were treated decently and were given three meals,” Abu Baker said, claiming that Eritrean agents in Yemen tried to kidnap three of them from the prison in January.
Abu Baker told Al Jazeera that nine of his group were kidnapped by his government’s men from the camping area and were found incarcerated in Asmara prison.
“They went missing during the first four days of May. We informed Yemen police and the UNHCR office three days after their disappearance. Relatives of the abducted refugees told us that they ended up in Sambal prison.”
Human Right Watch released a report on May 26 about abuses of African migrants by human traffickers in Yemen, saying that the traffickers seize those migrants and physically humiliate them in order to extort ransom from their relatives overseas.
However, Nick Stanton, public information officer at the UNHCR replied: “UNHCR has no knowledge of any of the Eritreans currently camping in Sanaa being kidnapped and forcibly returned to Eritrea. Any reports of such incidents should be brought to the attention of the law enforcement officials who can investigate the matter further.”
In January, Yemen and UNHCR officials visited the Eritreans in prison and told them that they would be transferred to the capital to obtain official documents as attesting to their refugee status. The UN agency accommodated them in hotels for three months. Then, the refugees were asked to search for accommodation for themselves. “UNCHR told us that it did not have money to pay the hotels,” Abu Baker said.
The Eritreans claim that they are not like the other Africans who arrive in Yemen as they are at risk of being captured and forcibly returned home.
To protest against the move, the refugees camped out in al-Safia district in the Yemeni capital, demanding the UN agency to either provide them with proper camps or resettle them in any country that does not have sea or land borders with Eritrea.
The UNHCR flatly denied the refugees’ accusations that it abandoned them in their hour of need, adding that the agency’s actions were “wrongly portrayed”.
Jamal al-Najjar, an information assistant with UNHCR, told Al Jazeera that the agency accommodated the Eritreans in hotels in the capital until their official documents were ready.
“They had been regularly counselled that once recognised as refugees, they would be expected to find their own means of accommodation and subsistence, as other refugees are also required to do,” al-Najjar said.
The UNHCR official said that the refugees were given a sum of money after leaving the hotels and told that the agency could no longer provide them with assistance. The agency said that it treats the Eritreans like other refugees who fled the country from the Horn of Africa.
One of the refugees said that the agency gave men 17,000 Yemeni rials ($80) and women 3,000 rials ($14).
“Eritrean refugees have the same opportunities as the other refugees in the country and UNHCR has provided them with all possible means of subsistence support,” he said.
Shortly after leaving the hotels, a local Eritrean NGO called Al Aredh Al Sedeq Foundation provided the refugees with blankets, mattresses, food, and cooking appliances.
Like men, the women and children have no other choice but to spend most of their time in the camping area.
Sitting with other desperate women, Fatima Mohammad came to Yemen with her husband, daughter and brother.
“We escaped from Eritrea because we could pay for rent,” she said.
She was among 14 people who sailed in one boat.
“The trip was difficult as I was not used to sea voyages,” she recounted.
Mouna Ahmad fled Eritrea with her husband and has been left to rest in a hotel on compassionate grounds after suffering a miscarriage.
The women remain in the camping area until the afternoon and then squat in a windowless warehouse rented by the foundation to accommodate the stranded women and children.
The warehouse has one bathroom and women cook food in the same area where they sleep. There is no fan or airconditioning.
Abu Baker says that the foundation pays $1,300 monthly for the warehouse and another $850 monthly for six bathrooms.
Abdul Sallam al-Nawab, head of the refugees department at the Ministry of Human Rights, told Al Jazeera that the UN agency is responsible for taking care of the refugees and looking into any reports of violation of human rights.
The official says that the Eritreans are trying to put pressure on the UN agency and Yemeni government by claiming that they are in danger of being kidnapped by their homeland’s intelligence.
But al-Nawab insists: “No one can snatch them from Yemen. They are under the protection of the Yemeni government.”