Sharing the Best of British Expertise
A year ago today, a boat carrying about 145 people, almost all of them Somalis with official refugee documents, was on its way to Sudan from Yemen. It was passing through the narrow Bab el-Mandeb strait when it came under fire. The shots, a confidential report to the UN Security Council confirmed four months later, were ‘almost certainly’ fired from a machine-gun mounted on a helicopter. Only ‘the Saudi Arabia-led coalition forces,’ it added, ‘have the capability to operate armed utility helicopters in the area.’ (They are Apache helicopters, made in the United States.)
‘The helicopter was right over us and it had these huge lights on,’ a survivor later told a journalist. ‘They just kept shooting.’ Some of the people on the boat hid under the bodies of the dead. Others tried to signal that they were civilians by using flashlights. When the firing eventually stopped, the boat’s captain, who had been shot in the leg, managed to steer the boat back towards the Yemeni port city of Al Hudaydah before he bled to death.
Dawood Fadal, the port’s head of security, told the New York Times that the workers at the port had been overwhelmed by the number of bodies when the boat arrived. ‘Our hospitals did not have room for them so we had to put them in the fish fridges. Can you imagine what that looks like?’ he said. At least 42 people had been killed.
Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Yemen, backed by its Western allies and a number of other states, had been going on for two years by the time this boat filled with bodies arrived at Al Hudaydah. The coalition had already committed a series of probable war crimes: attacks on hospitals and homes, the use of cluster munitions, a blockade depriving Yemeni civilians of food and fuel. Fishing boats off Yemen’s coast had been fired on before, killing at least 11 people. This wasn’t the first time that East African refugees had suffered. A Saudi airstrike on a refugee camp in March 2015 had killed 45 people. Another, at an international aid office two months later, killed five Ethiopians.
The deaths of 42 Somali refugees off the coast of Yemen drew little international attention. Saudi Arabia and its allies blankly denied culpability. Caroline Lucas repeatedly asked about the attack in the House of Commons. Each time the British government issued a two-sentence response saying it was for the Saudis to investigate. (The Security Council was already investigating and pointing the finger at British-backed Saudi forces.) There was no response from the US government. Even Somalia’s response was muted: it, too, was a coalition ally of Saudi Arabia.
An indication of the desperation of many of those leaving Somalia and other countries in East Africa is that the civil war in Yemen did not stop them going there. About 85,000 people from the Horn of Africa arrived in Yemen in 2017, according to the UN Migration Agency (IOM). Many continued to travel after the 16 March massacre. In two consecutive days in August, hundreds of Somali and Ethiopian refugees were forced off their boats and into the sea by smugglers concerned about being spotted by Saudi coalition forces. Dozens drowned.
The IOM emergency officer in Aden, Lina Koussa, told me that some of the migrants had not even known there was a war in Yemen. Instead of avoiding it, she said that many were taking dangerous routes through it to try to reach safer countries. According to the UNHCR, there are 281,019 refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen, 90 per cent of whom are Somali.
Many of the other 10 per cent are Eritrean. ‘They came out illegally, and they fear the consequences if they return,’ Lul Seyoum, the director of the International Centre for Eritrean Refugees and Asylum Seekers, told me. Her organisation has not had contact with Eritreans in Yemen for at least two years. ‘It became impossible for them to get in touch with us,’ she said. Their situation has not been helped by the friendly relations between the Saudi and Eritrean governments (Eritrea has provided an important military base for the war on Yemen).
Britain’s response has been to continue hardening its borders against East Africans while opening them to Saudi royals. Yussuf Ahmed, the co-ordinator of the Somali Community Centre in Islington, told me that it has become ‘very, very difficult’ for Somali refugees to get to the UK. Many have ended up in Libya, he said, at the mercy of criminal gangs.
By contrast, the Saudi crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman was fêted by the British government when he came to London earlier this month. He was met on the tarmac at Heathrow by Boris Johnson. Billboards with the slogan ‘United Kingdoms’, paid for by the Saudi government, lined his route from the airport. He had lunch with the queen. Theresa May spoke glowingly of his record on women’s rights.
At the end of his visit, Salman pledged to buy 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets. A Downing Street spokesperson trumpeted new ‘direct Saudi investment in the UK’. A £100 million aid deal was announced to ‘boost livelihoods' in the world’s poorest countries. There was no mention of the Yemenis undergoing their third year of Saudi bombardment, or the East African refugees massacred with a helicopter-mounted machine-gun in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait. Penny Mordaunt, the international development secretary, said: 'We are sharing the best of British expertise.'