AMRAN, 25 November 2010 (IRIN)
Escalating fighting between Houthi-led Shia rebels and pro-government militia in Yemen’s remote northwestern districts of Qutabir and Monabih has forced dozens of families across the border into Saudi Arabia, according to local officials.
“As a result of recurrent clashes between Houthis and tribesmen supporting the government, dozens of families from our district infiltrated over the past three days into the southern region of the kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] in search of safety and better living conditions,” Mohammed Hatabah, a local council member from Qutabir district, in the Saada governorate, told IRIN.
He said some of the families had only just returned home to Saada after several months in displaced persons camps, or among host communities, following last year’s heavy fighting between government forces and Houthi rebels.
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a statement on 23 November it was in the process of dispatching a team from its regional office in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, “to establish the numbers and assess needs” of those who have managed to cross the border.
Since a ceasefire was announced in mid-February 2010, sporadic fighting between Houthi forces and pro-government tribes has broken out across the Saada governorate and in the northern part of Amran governorate.
Refoulement of refugees
Abdurrahman Dalman, a human rights activist from Saada, told IRIN that over the past few weeks several families had tried to enter Saudi Arabia, but had been forced back by Saudi border guards.
According to Dalman, the Saudi authorities were taking a hard line because of the increasing number of illegal Yemeni immigrants in the country, and security fears following an incursion by Houthi fighters during the 2009 conflict, which resulted in cross-border retaliation by the Saudi army.
“Many of these immigrants work as beggars in main cities of the kingdom, which is not permissible there. The other thing is that Houthi fighters attacked Saudi troops from deserted homes in [Saudi] territory, which were once occupied by displaced Yemeni civilians,” he said.
There have been six rounds of fighting between Yemen’s security forces and Houthi rebels since 2004. The last round, in August 2009, was the fiercest, displacing more than 300,000 civilians.
Human Rights Watch reported that during the sixth round, Saudi Arabia committed refoulement (unlawful forced return to persecution or a situation threatening life or freedom) of Yemeni refugees by preventing them from crossing into Saudi Arabia at border crossings and by deporting those who managed to cross the long and porous border undetected.
The Houthi movement draws its support from the Zaydi Shiite population in northern Yemen. They demand autonomy as a response to their perceived marginalization, and in protest over the influence of the United States and Saudi Arabia on government policy.
Tensions have building since the February ceasefire over the slow implementation of six conditions set by the government. They include the dismantling of roadblocks and withdrawal of Houthi fighters from positions in the mountains; freedom of movement for government officials; the return of captured Saudi and Yemeni military equipment; the release of all military and civilian prisoners; adherence to the rule of law; and the end of incursions into Saudi territory.
The Houthis argue that an exchange of prisoners was part of the ceasefire deal but the government had reneged on this, and they accuse the authorities of waging a proxy war through pro-government tribesmen.