Forgotten War, Abandoned Refugees: The Plight of Yemenis in Lebanon
When Saad was told by an employee at an office of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, that the resettlement option was not available to Yemeni applicants in Lebanon, he felt devastated. His thoughts went immediately to his aging mother in Yemen, who had squeezed every last drop of her savings to pay for her son’s ticket to Lebanon — a destination they saw as their last chance for a future away from violence and starvation.
Why wasn’t the resettlement option available to Yemenis, like it was to Syrian refugees, wondered Saad?
Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, is now in its seventh year of a brutal war that the UN has deemed “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” More than four million Yemenis have been driven from their homes.
Lebanon is one of a few remaining countries Yemenis can enter without onerous visa restrictions. While they still need entry papers, they can obtain a three-month tourist visa upon arrival at the Beirut airport — as long as they are carrying $2,000 in cash and proof of a hotel booking.
Before the start of the war in 2015, Yemenis were frequent visitors to Lebanon. They came for medical treatment, on business, as students and tourists.
Yemen is now in its seventh year of a brutal war that the UN has deemed “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” More than four million Yemenis have been driven from their homes.Today, as life in Lebanon has become extremely difficult for most of its residents, Yemenis face compounded challenges: trying to survive financially while navigating a procedural labyrinth for refugee status that leaves them in limbo and uncertainty.
Daily Life for Yemenis in Lebanon
For the average Yemeni in Lebanon, navigating a cost of living that is 55 percent higher than in Yemen, and rent that is 276 percent higher, is no easy feat — especially when they cannot legally work. The Lebanese Labor Act bars any visiting foreigner from work except for those with a work permit issued by the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, which requires applicants to meet conditions that are very difficult to fulfill. For example, one condition is that prospective migrants receive pre-approval from the ministry before arrival in Lebanon. Fearing imprisonment and deportation, Yemenis stay away from work in Lebanon.
Students, who make up the majority of the Yemeni community in Lebanon, face the biggest hurdles. Some of them relied on scholarships and a regular stipend from the Yemeni government before the war, but now continuous delays in payments have caused many of them to go hungry or get kicked out of dorm rooms when they couldn’t pay rent.
Those students without scholarships relied on their families in Yemen for financial support, but seven years of war have almost depleted this source.
Even renewing their residency permit, which the Lebanese state requires annually, is a source of stress for students. Costing around L.L. 300,000, the renewal process requires identification papers, proof of a foreign source of income, a certificate by an institution or university that specifies the enrollment period, proof of domicile in Lebanon, and an attestation signed by a notary that the student will not work.
For the average Yemeni in Lebanon, navigating a cost of living that is 55 percent higher than in Yemen, and rent that is 276 percent higher, is no easy feat — especially when they cannot legally work.“It is frustrating. I no longer know whether I should focus on my studies, or on how to spend the little money I have to survive for as long as possible,” confessed Adeeb, a Yemeni student who came to Lebanon in 2013 to attend university.
Forced to choose between hunger or an education, dozens of Yemeni students have dropped out of school.
Yet, many Yemenis do find life in Lebanon personally enriching and enjoy the eye-opening exposure to multiple cultures, rich history, different languages and lifestyles. Personal freedoms are also crucial: Yemenis can move freely around the country, provided they carry their visa or residency permit, and they are not concerned about any direct religious oppression.
Becoming a Yemeni Refugee
According to UNHCR figures, only 25 Yemenis in Lebanon counted as refugees in mid-2020.
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention definition used by UNCHR, a refugee is an individual who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
To apply for refugee status, Yemenis first fill out a form at the UNHCR office in Lebanon, and then await an interview with an official. For the interview, the applicant should bring supporting certificates and documentation. At the interview, questions revolve around the applicant’s background, health status, family status, future plans, political issues, life in Lebanon, and the way an individual is coping with it. Next, the office checks the legal status of the applicant and whether or not their yearly residence permit has expired. The office also checks if the applicant has a criminal history with the Lebanese General Security.
Pending refugee status, UNCHR deems an applicant an “asylum-seeker,” or “an individual who has sought international protection and whose claims for refugee status have not yet been determined.”
In 2020, there were 104 Yemeni asylum-seekers in Lebanon.
According to UNHCR statistics, between 2017 and 2019, the number of Yemeni asylum-seeker applications in Lebanon decreased from 50 to 29. Out of a total 121 asylum applications in this period, 40 were approved. It is unclear why 81 were “otherwise closed” by UNHCR.
UNHCR also provides resettlement options, in which refugees request to migrate to a third state that has agreed to admit and grant them permanent residence. This mandated solution is intended for refugees who cannot return home because of continued instability, wars, or persecution.
As the war in Yemen is ongoing, with widespread poverty, famine, fear, and destruction throughout the country, Yemenis abroad cannot return home.
As the war in Yemen is ongoing, with widespread poverty, famine, fear, and destruction throughout the country, Yemenis abroad cannot return home.“I applied because I saw no future left for Yemen. I, and later my family, wanted to be recognized as UNHCR refugees and be resettled in another country that has a better life,” said Yaser, a Yemeni man who moved to Lebanon with his wife and children to pursue his studies
Yet becoming a UNHCR-approved refugee is its own arduous journey.
Interviews conducted in May 2021 with 14 Yemeni men and women who had applied for refugee status at the UNHCR offices in Lebanon revealed a joint sentiment that the resettlement process takes too much time and that they do not have hopes of their applications being accepted, with some describing the whole process as “fruitless.”
“After being done with the interview, once accepted, we were given a UNHCR asylum-seeker certificate. This means we have not yet been granted the refugee certificate, even if getting to this stage of the application process took over a year,” said a Yemeni man who had applied with his family three years ago.
Interviewees also believe that UNHCR treats Yemeni applicants differently than applicants from other nationalities.
“Unlike other nationalities, Yemeni applications take a very long time, even though the number of Yemeni applications is tiny compared to others. I am losing faith in the UNHCR,” one Yemeni asylum seeker said.
Another asylum-seeker recalled what one UNHCR employee said to him: “You don’t have a Yemeni government that would bring our attention to its scattered citizens. No comparison can be made between the millions of Syrians who left their country and are staying in Lebanon, and the Yemenis whose numbers are negligible.”
Recently, a few Yemenis have been accepted to be resettled and granted refugee certificates by the UNHCR, but their resettlement process is still pending. When speaking to these applicants, it seemed that at least two were actively supported by a UN official and a member in the UN panel of experts in Yemen.
The research for this article found that only one Yemeni refugee had been successfully resettled in Europe — and that his case was connected to a senior politician wanted by a warring party in Yemen.
Average Yemenis who cannot appeal to political influence seem to not progress through the internal processing at the UNHCR office.
The reasons behind this remain unclear, and UNHCR did not respond to a request for comment at the time of this writing.
The research for this article found that only one Yemeni refugee had been successfully resettled in Europe — and that his case was connected to a senior politician wanted by a warring party in Yemen.“When I told a UNHCR employee that it was my right to become a UNHCR refugee and be resettled,” recalled Saad, “she replied: ‘We do not grant Yemeni applicants the resettlement solution.’”
Another asylum-seeker put it bluntly: “I realized that on paper, I am told that I could become a refugee and be resettled, but in the reality of this world, I totally couldn’t.”
The Limits of UNHCR Assistance
Yemeni asylum-seekers expressed frustration that the UNHCR does not help them navigate complications with Lebanese state institutions.
Such is the case with arrests and deportations of Yemenis who hold asylum-seeker status.
According to procedure, a Yemeni individual with a UNHCR asylum-seeker certificate must carry it with them at all times. In case of arrest by Lebanese General Security officials for an expired residency permit, the asylum-seeker must call the UNHCR office, which is supposed to assign them a lawyer to work for their release.
Yet this process did not work for Adam, who held asylee status from the UNHCR office when he received a deportation notice in 2016 issued by Lebanese General Security as his residency permit expired. Adam alleges he did not receive any attention from the UNHCR and had to eventually ask Lebanese friends for help.
The threat of deportation afflicts Yemenis beyond Lebanon. In Jordan, deportations this year led to an outcry among the Yemeni diaspora and human rights organizations against deportations of Yemeni asylum-seekers registered with UNHCR.
Most of the interviewees affirmed they received financial and humanitarian aid from the UNHCR office.
“I received $280 per month from the UN for about six months, and then it stopped a few years ago. When I asked why, I was told that monthly financial aid is given based on priority and for a limited period of time,” a Yemeni applicant stated.
Another applicant recounted: “The office gave me L.L. 40,500 per month for a while before it stopped...that was when the exchange rate of a US dollar was L.L. 1,500. Once I got the certificate, the monthly support lasted for only three additional months. The following year the aid increased to L.L. 100,000, after the change in currency exchange rates, but continued for only four months. This year, I have yet to receive anything.”
The UNHCR office also offered an annual one-time winter aid. In January, one asylum-seeker received L.L. 900,000. Last year, as the exchange rate differed, he received L.L. 400,000.
Finding their lives in limbo, and amidst confusion about the timing and amounts of financial assistance from UNHCR, Yemenis feel they are treated as passive, short-term aid receivers.
Forgotten War, Forgotten Refugees
Amidst what is practically a media blackout on the devastating conditions inside their country — and in the absence of powerful advocacy campaigns by Yemeni civil society and human rights activists — Yemeni refugees feel that their fate, like that of their home, is not a priority for the international community.
Every year, a limited number of submissions by the UNHCR are considered for refugee resettlement programs. Those programs are usually established and determined by resettlement countries.
Some of these countries are also involved in the war in Yemen or are complicit in war crimes and perpetuate the war through massive arms deals, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, among others.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a UN source familiar with the matter stated, “Unfortunately, Yemenis are not listed by the prominent countries. Those countries control the scene of resettlement, and politics play a big role in that. Yemen is considered a problem by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. See, Syria exerted a lot of pressure on Europe by the flows of refugees from Turkey, but Yemen is not a close problem to such countries. The latter would always work on the problems that are internally affecting them.”
[Some resettlement countries] are also involved in the war in Yemen or are complicit in war crimes and perpetuate the war through massive arms deals, such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, among others.By comparison, Lebanon and Yemen host more migrants than many of the world’s wealthiest states.
In 2018, Yemen received more migrants than all of Europe. In 2019, 11,500 people on average boarded vessels each month from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, making the Red Sea the busiest maritime migration route on earth — though it receives almost no attention in comparison with the Mediterranean. Yemen also hosts the second-largest number of Somali refugees in the world.
Lebanon has also placed more powerful and wealthy states to shame by opening its doors to millions of refugees from around the world, even though it is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.
Amidst Lebanon’s financial and economic crisis, UN agencies and international advocacy organizations must do more to assist and support Yemenis within the country and abroad.