Yemeni staff in a restaurant in Garowe
Yemeni staff in a restaurant in Garowe © Ahmed Shire

Yemen and Somalia are connected by a maritime border that runs through the Red Sea—a space of cooperation and exchange that joins rather than divides the two countries.  Historically, movements of Somali and Yemeni people have occurred in both directions. But, since the start of Yemen’s civil war in 2015, most migration has been from Yemenis fleeing the conflict, with some Somalis living in Yemen also returning home. Prior to this, the proximity of the two countries, which fuelled trade between their coastal towns and cities, meant that communities of Yemenis and Somalis had developed on both sides of the Red Sea, facilitating ongoing cultural and economic interactions. Now, most Yemenis who arrive in Puntland are refugees attracted by the proximity, ease of entry and social connections with pre-existing Yemeni communities. Many see Puntland as a temporary refuge, or staging post for more ambitious future migrations. As part of RVI’s ongoing project on the cross-border connections between Yemen and Somalia (read the two reports here and here), the Institute’s partners at Puntland State University in Garowe spoke to Yemenis living in Bosaso and Garowe in Puntland, to discuss their lives there.

Why do Yemenis Choose Puntland?

Since the start of Yemen’s civil war, the migration of Yemeni people to Puntland has increased as they sought a refuge from the fighting and economic collapse in their homeland. Somalia is often not the first choice destination for Yemenis as many prefer to stay in the Gulf region, where there are likely to be better economic opportunities. However, to move freely and live there they must have a kafeel—sponsor—but many do not. This is a major reason many end up in Somalia, where there is no requirement for a kafeel and there are no restrictions on entry for Yemenis fleeing the war.

Maasim Khaadim, a Yemeni living in Bosaso, said that he:

Used to smuggle khat into Saudi Arabia, it was a good business, but I was arrested by Saudi Police at the border, they entered by data into their system, and I am blocked to enter any Gulf Countries. I tried Oman but my data showed as ‘Blocked Entry’. They arrested me, transferred me to prison. During my prison time in Oman I met other Yemenis and they told me about Somalia. After release I decided to move [there].

There are other factors that pull Yemenis to Puntland. First, the established Mukulla-Bosaso transport corridor means that Puntland is quite easy to get to, particularly from Yemen’s south-eastern Hadhramaut region, where security is generally better than the rest of the country. Most refugees coming from Yemen to Puntland use Mukulla port to reach Bosaso and then move to other destinations by land. The cost of travel between Mukulla and Bosaso is very low as there are already boats which transport commodities—including fish—between the ports.

Abdalla, a Yemeni living in Bosaso who owns a restaurant there said, ‘Somalia is nearer to Yemen, its less costly to travel and living cost is cheap, we are here to earn income to send back home for our families’. Shaahir, a Yemeni who works as a waiter in Garowe, told us that ‘I have a family of 10 persons, they live in Yemen and they need USD 400 for their living costs but I only send USD 100–150 per month, sometimes nothing, they are suffering, and I am trying to help them’.

Mohamed Salim, a 21-year-old waiter now living and working in Garowe is from San’a in Yemen. He described how he had ended up in Puntland. Mohamed left Yemen in 2014 for Saudi Arabia, where he became a cashier in a supermarket. He lived in Riyadh for four years, but in 2018 the Saudi government adopted a law criminalizing foreigners working in retail businesses. His Saudi kafeel (also his employer) cancelled his job. He was then arrested and deported to Yemen. Mohamed stayed two months there and then decided to travel to Egypt, with the intention of reaching Europe. During the journey, Egyptian police arrested him at the border and he spent 57 days in prison. They later released him on condition that he go back to Yemen, but he flew to Malaysia after receiving an invitation from a friend in Kuala Lumpur to join him there. After his arrival, he got a job at a Syrian restaurant. Following a three month stay he moved to Muscat, Oman, when another friend invited him for a job. But, as Yemeni workers are only allowed to work in restaurant jobs or manual labour, such as painting buildings, Mohamed had difficulties getting a visa extension and was later arrested and deported back to Yemen. During his prison days, other inmates told him about Somalia, the route, and business opportunities. After his release, he decided to travel there.

To see an illustration of Mohamed’s journey from Yemen to Somalia via Egypt, Oman and Malaysia click here.

The long-established trade connections between Yemen and Somalia mean that the routes between the two countries are already well-known, and information is shared via pre-existing Yemeni communities in Somalia. This facilitates mobility between the two countries. When they get to Puntland, many of the Yemeni refugees often start off by living in camps supported by international agencies and the Puntland authorities.

Outside of their own communities, Yemenis feel reasonably at home in Somalia, which shares common cultural practices, including some foods, khat chewing and Islam. Inter-marriage between the two communities—both in Yemen and Somalia—is common. Many Somali returnees to Puntland have Yemeni wives and Yemenis living in Puntland have made mixed families. Abdalla Hussein told us, ‘I am Yemeni, and I married two Somali women’.

Yemenis in Business

Despite the relative ease of moving and integrating into Puntland life, Yemeni refugees often struggle to survive financially even with support from aid agencies. Some have been able to start businesses—often restaurants—while others take jobs in the food and construction sectors. Businesses are mainly partnerships with Somalis. Generally, a Somali partner injects the capital, while the Yemeni provides skills and labour for running the business.

Yemeni refugees, unlike Ethiopians for example, are more likely to find employment, due to their skills and their social connections with local people. Some problems do arise with language, khat chewing and frequent conflicts, which are all raised as issues by Somali employers. A Somali NGO employee noted that, ‘most of the legal cases [we try to help resolve] concerning Yemeni refugees are over conflict with their employers or business partners, while most of the cases from Ethiopian refugees are on domestic issues’.

Hussein, a Yemeni migrant in Garowe, reported that: ‘I had a booming restaurant, near Garowe municipality building, it was a profit yielding business. One day, without prior notice, local government contractors entered the building and demolished the restaurant structures, we lost all prepared food, stock, supplies at that day, now I re-started another restaurant business’. Abdullahi, a Yemeni businessman, noted: ‘I partnered in seven businesses with Somali traders, all of them collapsed due to conflict between me and my partners, currently I run my own business in Bosaso’.

Mohamed Hussein is a Yemeni refugee in Garowe, born in Raadac in North Yemen. He was a businessman in Raadac before the start of Yemen war, but fled to Somalia. He left Yemen in 2017 through the Mukulla-Bosaso corridor, with a Somali returnee from Yemen. Mohamed planned to start a business with his Somali friend in Kismayo, but their plan failed after disagreements between them. He decided to start a business in Bosaso, but had no capital in hand. Mohamed started to look for capital and finally met a businessman in Bosaso, Yasin, who agreed to help. Yasin gave him a small loan as seed capital. He started the business and opened a restaurant selling Yemeni food. After a few months, the business collapsed. Mohamed decided to move to Garowe, the capital of Puntland, and Yasin again provided a small loan. He started a new business by partnering with a Somali trader and now employs fifteen other Yemenis. His business has become a central meeting place for Yemeni people in Garowe and Puntland at large.

Searching for a Better Life

As Mohamed’s story shows, Yemenis are generally resilient in coping with the difficulties of life in Puntland. They work in groups, which provides a degree of solidarity and mutual support, and often draw on their connections with the Yemeni communities that lived in Puntland before the Yemen war. But, despite the safe refuge, and some economic opportunities, Puntland is usually not the end goal for Yemeni refugees and migrants. Most of those interviewed had aspirations to move to other countries where they perceive there to be better economic prospects. These include Ethiopia, Kenya, the Gulf and even Europe. Mohamed Salim, who told us his life story before ending up in Puntland, explained how he ‘moved like a bird, from country to country, but always ends up back to Yemen. Now, I cannot go back to Yemen … my intention is to save money to reach other countries then to Europe.’ Due to its proximity and ease of travel and existing connections, Puntland seems to mostly be an interim point for Yemen’s new generation of migrants, on a long journey towards a better life.