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Yemen: Magnet for refugees and Al Qaeda?

Civil war and lawlessness have turned the Arab world's poorest state into an attractive destination for African refugees and, U.S. spy agencies say, an alternative base for Al Qaeda.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Yemen's notoriously porous border has allowed this country to become a new hub for Al Qaeda, according to U.S. and European counterterrorism officials. On Monday, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for the attempted Christmas bombing in which a Nigerian man tried to take down a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight with a chemical explosive. The bomber reportedly told investigators he was trained and equipped by Al Qaeda in Yemen. Al Qaeda said it attempted the attack on the American airliner in retaliation for a series of missile attacks in Yemen earlier this year in which the U.S. is believed to have participated. Monday, President Barack Obama responded to the thwarted bombing, saying, "We will continue to use every element of our national power to disrupt, to dismantle and defeat" Al Qaeda. The New York Times reported on its Monday front page that the CIA and special forces have opened a covert front in the struggle against terrorism in Yemen in the last year. GlobalPost highlighted the early signs of this mounting effort by the U.S. to target a fractured, but still lethal Al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa  following a series of U.S.-led attacks in September in Yemen and Somalia. In this story from Yemen, a GlobalPost correspondent unpacks the current security risk and refugee crisis that is growing along the Yemen-Somalia border. 

ADEN, Yemen — Amina Saleh Ali's feet were swollen and wrinkled from sitting in water for almost two days. She still had sand under her fingernails, in her eyebrows and along the seams of her blue headscarf. Her eyes were creased with exhaustion and relief.

“I don't know what I will find here,” Ali said on a recent December morning, sitting on a mattress a few hundred meters from the beach on Yemen's southwest coast. “All I want is a good life, that's all I want.” 

A Somali refugee sleeps at a trasit center in southern Yemen hours after arriving by boat.
(Paul Stephens/GlobalPost)

Two hours earlier, Ali and 49 other men, women and children stepped off a 30-foot, open-air fishing skiff, where they had been crammed, chest to back, for 36 hours, while they were smuggled from Somalia to Yemen, across the lawless, pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden. This group was lucky. Everyone on board survived.

Like roughly 80,000 other Somali and Ethiopian refugees who have arrived on Yemen's southern beaches this year, Ali fled war and poverty in her homeland. Due to worsening instability in Somalia and ongoing drought in Ethiopia, the number of African refugees trafficked across the Gulf of Aden hit record highs in 2009, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Even more are expected next year.

Ali Muthana Hassan, Yemen's vice minister of Foreign Affairs, said the huge number of refugees and illegal immigrants from Africa imposes an economic and security burden on his already-fragile state.

An estimated 750,000 African refugees and illegal African immigrants already live in Yemen, he said. In the past, Yemen has served primarily as a “transit country”— a staging ground where refugees could find illegal passage to the other Gulf states. But as economic opportunities diminish in places like the United Arab Emirates, more refugees are settling permanently in Yemen.

In recent weeks, some African refugees have been caught allegedly fighting as mercenary soldiers for the Shiite rebel group in the north; others are said to be joining ranks with Al Qaeda in the east, Hassan said. “When they arrive, we cannot tell who they are. Are they smugglers? Are they refugees, or Al Qaeda? There are too many of them and our coast guard is too small and too ineffective to check everyone,” he said.

While Yemen had a “moral obligation” to accept asylum seekers, he said, the skyrocketing numbers pose a “major concern, both economically and from a security perspective.”

“Already, many of our own citizens cannot find jobs, and we have limited facilities in the health sector and in schools. These huge numbers of refugees are bringing a burden to Yemen,” he said.