Doing Research on Yemen and its Migratory Movements in the Context of War

#1 Experiences of refugeeness: Yemenis in Djibouti since 2015

01/28/2022 at 4pm CET – Online

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The Markazi Camp in Obock: a situation of openness and confinement 

We will present the confined and open situation in which the Yemeni refugees find themselves in two sections: first by explaining the origin of Markazī’s formation as a refugee camp, and then the mechanisms of the main organizations managing the situation of the refugees, focusing on the level of their dependence on the support of local and international, private and public institutional actors. We will then talk about the population of the camp, and how they are organized and organize themselves. In the following sub-section, we will examine the dynamics of refugee encampment from the perspective of their living space, the issues of access to housing, health and livelihoods, as « thinking about space is equivalent to thinking about the social in its materiality » (Remy, 2016).

In the second part, we will examine the territorial insertion of Camp Markazī and its openness at two scales: spatial proximity and mobility. At the local scale, it is important to relate the development of the camp to that of the city of Obock, as well as to illustrate the transformations engendered by the construction of the camp. It is necessary to examine the living conditions of the host community and the relations they have with the refugees. Finally, we will present the cases of Yemeni refugees who have chosen to leave for Europe clandestinely or who have been resettled. We will show how domestic, foreign, private and public actors have an important impact on the living space of refugees, as well as on the return or flight decisions of many of them to third countries. Finally, we will discuss the future of Yemeni refugees and the sustainability of the camp.

Samaher Al-Hadheri is currently a Parliamentary Assistant in the National Assembly of the French Parliament. She has an MA in Geography, Planning, Environment, & Development (La Sorbonne) on which her thesis focused on Yemeni refugees based on fieldwork research in Djibouti. In addition to that, she accumulated a diverse and an international experience in the private sector as well as the local, national, & non-profit sector such as the Fatima Bint Hazza Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, the National Office for the Assistance to Refugees & Disaster Stricken People (ONARS) in Djibouti and Permanent Delegations (Yemen & Djibouti) at UNESCO in Paris. 

“We are not refugees!” Legal categories and identities: sex, race, class among Yemeni families in Djibouti

Since Yemen’s entry to war in 2015, the historical labor migration of Yemeni men to Djibouti has shifted to a mix of work and war migration of men, women and families. Despite these new migration patterns, the vast majority of the breadwinners, usually men, who follow the footsteps of their forefathers’ path, continue to refer to themselves only as merchants (tuǧǧār) and not as refugees (lāj’iīn) .

“We are not refugees! [Neḥna muš lāj’iīn!]. We are not poor, like the people in the camp… And we are not new to Djibouti. We were already living here before the war.”

This reluctance to see themselves as refugees stems from their reflection on identity linked to migration constructed around gender, race and class. The refugees’ economic and social dependence is incompatible with the story of a migration that is above all commercial, chosen and temporary. This refusal to be considered as a refugee reflects a desire to be separated from their refugee counterparts in the Markazi refugee camp in Obock, who are not considered as pure and authentic Yemenis by many members of the merchant community due to their Afro-Yemeni mixed origins. While men as breadwinners, may escape from being referred to as a “refugee”by presenting themselves as tuǧǧār (merchants), women are trapped in the “refugee” ġurbaẗ (exile) as they mostly came after the war broke out and as there are no job prospects either due to language or cultural barriers.

This presentation is based on an ethnography conducted between 2018 and 2021 among Yemeni women and families in Djibouti.

Morgann Barbara Pernot is a PhD student in sociology and anthropology at Iris – EHESS (Paris). Her study focuses on Yemeni women’s migration experience in Djibouti along with a 6 month fieldwork research in Djibouti. She is currently a fellow of the French Collaborative Institute on Migration (CIMigration) and the French Center for Ethiopian and Horn of Africa Studies (CFEE). She graduated in sociology of the Middle East (Sciences Po) and Arabic language (Inalco) and studied Arabic language in Egypt (University of Alexandria) and Jordan (University of Jordan), and social science (Sciences Po) and philosophy (La Sorbonne). 

Lāji’/Réfugié/Nanmin: Claiming Refuge in Inhospitable Wor(l)ds

This presentation compares and discusses the experiences of Yemenis seeking and securing refugee status in Djibouti and in South Korea, two distinct host societies. How do Yemenis in these contexts conceptualize this word, refugee, and what does this convey about their expectations of and demands upon the wor(l)d? I argue that, in both contexts, Yemenis accustomed to prior pathways of economic migration labor to be recognized and protected as rights-bearing refugees. In doing so, they are both pushing back against the perception of Yemenis as economic migrants (“fake refugees”) and rejecting emic identities associated with other forms of abjection (muwalladīn, akhdām). For, despite the stigma the term refugee bears in both places, for certain groups of forced migrants it can be as liberating as it is disabling.

Nathalie Peutz is Associate Professor of Arab Crossroads Studies and Anthropology at NYU Abu Dhabi, A cultural anthropologist, Peutz has conducted wide-ranging, ethnographic research in Yemen, Djibouti, and Somaliland. She is the author of Islands of Heritage: Conservation and Transformation in Yemen (Stanford University Press, 2018) and co-editor of The Deportation Regime: Sovereignty, Space, and the Freedom of Movement (with Nicholas De Genova, Duke University Press, 2010). Peutz is currently writing a book on Yemeni refugees and Ethiopian migrants in the Horn of Africa evaluating the impact of the UNHCR’s new Global Compact on Refugees in Djibouti, one of the pilot countries for the UN’s Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework.