Welcomes wear thin for Yemen's displaced

SANA'A, 9 September 2013 (IRIN) - "It's uncomfortable for everyone," said Omar Yahya Fadil, whose family has been displaced by the conflict in northern Yemen. He now lives in cramped quarters in the city of Haradh with his wife and three daughters.

They share a modest three-bedroom home with his in-laws and their four boys. "There is no privacy. It's a shame," Fadil said.

They left their home in neighbouring Sa'dah Governorate for Haradh, in Hajjah Governorate, in July 2008, during the fifth round of fighting between Houthi militants and government forces.

Like the majority of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Hajjah, Fadil has little hope that his situation will improve anytime soon. "We can't go back; our home was destroyed," he said.

He worries that he will not be able to pay off the debt he has accrued just to make ends meet, but he acknowledges that things could be worse; throngs of displaced families are living in tented settlements throughout Haradh, he said.

Displacement "has doubled the population of Haradh, placing increased pressures on local facilities," Richard Ndaula, who heads the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) office in northeast Haradh District, told IRIN.

Although Yemen has a traditional culture of hospitality, the protracted displacement situation in Hajjah has created tensions in what was already a poor region. Competition over scarce resources has become a regular source of friction between the host community and IDPs.

Resentment over resources

The government and humanitarian agencies are operating several aid projects in the area, and IRIN met frequent accusations from IDPs and locals that "the other side" was receiving more aid than they were.

Sheikh Hamoud Haidar, a tribal leader who heads Haradh's local council, cited a stalled water rehabilitation project that has pitted locals against aid agencies for what they perceive as part of a pattern of favouritism of IDPs at the expense of the host community.

The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) provided water pipes to host communities a few months ago, he said, but they have yet to be installed, leading "to community demonstrations that blocked the road to the [IDP] camps, saying 'no more organizations.'"

A spokeswoman for UNICEF told IRIN, "UNICEF has since engaged in some fundraising and advocacy to meet those needs, and the local council are now collaborating with Haradh's rural water authority, GARWSP [the General Authority for Rural Water Supply Projects]." Together, they have completed about 15 percent of the project, she said.

NGO Oxfam also works on water and sanitation in the area rehabilitating water points, setting up distribution systems, and testing water quality.

“One of our biggest challenges is the volume of people affected and the overwhelming needs compared to the resources available in a poor country like Yemen where there is scarcity of water and dependence on markets for food,” said Humayun Kabir Talukder, Oxfam’s public health engineer in Yemen.

“Host communities are also in need of water and other vital services and we've seen competition over resources in some areas. Consequently, we have to make tough decisions in our targeting and selection criteria to ensure we help the most vulnerable communities first.”

From the local perspective, according to Sheikh Haider, "When a member of the host community sees IDPs get everything while those who provided the land get nothing, this creates grudges."

"They're not mean to us, but they are not welcoming either"
But Fadil said he has not received any help from the humanitarian community. "I didn't know help was available to me," he said.

Instead, he tries to earn what money he can in Haradh's moribund economy, doing everything from collecting firewood to smuggling contraband into neighbouring Saudi Arabia. The latter, which entails a 12-hour desert trek under cover of darkness, pays 8,000 Yemeni rials (US$40) and carries the risk of being captured or shot by Saudi border patrol.

Collecting firewood is not without risk either, Fadil discovered when an angry local confronted him with gunfire. The situation was calmed when his brother-in-law intervened.

Suspicion from all sides

Community-IDPs relations are also tense further south, in the poor suburban district of Bani Hushaysh, on the outskirts of the capital, Sana'a.

Amel, a mother of five, whose husband was shot dead early in the Sa'dah struggle, told IRIN that Houthis in the area view her as a traitor for fleeing during the conflict, while government supporters suspect her of Houthi loyalties.

"In Sa'dah, it was very community-oriented where we lived; it was a protective community," she told IRIN. "In Bani Hushaysh, everyone [in the IDP community] is struggling to survive. We don't mix with people from Sana'a."

Her eldest child hangs out in the streets and refuses to go to school. "They ridicule him for being from Sa'dah and because he can't afford nice clothes," she said. "Being the oldest boy, an orphan, in a new place is a lot of pressure."

Mohammed, a father of five from Harf Sufyan in Amran Governorate, near Sa'dah's southern frontier, told IRIN that he is eager to return home despite the wholesale destruction that has devastated the area since 2008.

Before the conflict, "there were constantly neighbours and families visiting each other," he said. "Here [in Bani Hushaysh], each and every house is independent-focused. They're not mean to us, but they are not welcoming either," he said.

Like Amel, he has steered a middle road between pro-Houthi and pro-government factions in Bani Hushaysh, and is viewed with suspicion by both groups.

Still, under Yemen's new president, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, the situation has become less tense, IDPs say. When former president Ali Abdullah Saleh was in power, police would sporadically arrest alleged Houthi sympathizers in Bani Hushaysh, Mohammed said, and some of them were never released.

For local residents like Khaled al-Zubairi, who claims neutrality in the struggle, the influx of IDPs into Bani Hushaysh has been a mixed blessing. As a shop owner, his business has benefitted from a huge increase in new customers. At the same time, though, they are "driving away my old customers and driving down property value," he says.

"They live in slums," he said, referring to the cinderblock hovels in what used to be open fields near his home. "No plumbing, no garbage service. It's unhealthy, and it's unfair for those of who originally built this community."

But Al-Zubairi said he holds no animosity toward the IDPs. "This wasn't their plan," he said, adding, "I'm considering moving."