By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent
KHARAZ, Yemen, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Yemen is a poor and often dysfunctional Arab country, but to thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians it is a notch better than misery and danger at home.
Obah Idli, a 19-year-old from Somalia’s anarchic capital Mogadishu, made it to an isolated refugee camp in the desert, relieved to be alive after paying smugglers to sail her across the Red Sea from Djibouti with 30 of her compatriots.
"It was a very small boat. Everyone was fighting for space and water came in," she said, shifting her pink shawl as she waited for UNHCR refugee agency staff to register her at the Kharaz camp, 180 km (110 miles) from the port city Aden.
"I’d heard the smugglers put people in the sea. When we landed, the water came up to our mouths, but we made it," she said. "Last night I slept well, before I was always scared. You can’t stay in Mogadishu. I need a better future."
Many Africans consider Yemen a gateway to other parts of the Middle East and the West. It shares a border with oil-producing Saudi Arabia, which hosts millions of foreign workers.
But some Africans find their odyssey ends here, in lives half-lived because Yemen is itself too poor to offer a better future.
The flow from Somalia began when warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Clan warfare, famine and chaos engulfed the Horn of Africa nation, where an interim government and its Ethiopian allies are now battling Islamist rebels.
Nearly 30,000 Somalis and Ethiopians came ashore in Yemen last year. About 700 bodies washed up, some gnawed by sharks, and another 700 people went missing, U.N. officials say.
"Smugglers stuff people onto small boats like sardines," said Samer Haddadin, a UNHCR protection officer. "They spend two or three days like that and arrive with skin problems because they have to urinate where they sit. There is no way to move."
Passengers can expect no mercy from the crew. Tales abound of beatings, rape and killings on the voyage. "One group told me they had been with a woman whose baby was crying -- the smuggler took the baby and dropped it in the sea," Haddadin said.
Some, like Idli, arrive from Djibouti, a sea route that is much shorter and safer than the more commonly used one from the port of Bosasso in the semi-autonomous region of Puntland.
At least 37 Somalis were drowned off Yemen on Feb. 20 when the captain of their vessel ordered them to swim ashore, the Yemeni news agency Saba reported. About 70 were rescued.
It’s hard to tell refugees from economic migrants, but Yemen treats all Somali arrivals as refugees and the rest as illegal immigrants, unless they obtain refugee status from UNHCR.
SEARCH FOR OPPORTUNITY
In a dusty alleyway in Aden’s Basateen slum, home to Somalis and Yemenis with links to Somalia, a young man who gave his name as Mahed said he was aiming for the Saudi border.
"It’s hard to enter Saudi Arabia. We pay $50 and it’s dangerous, but we will try. We have no hope in Somalia."
When Africans land in Yemen, half of them simply disperse on their own, UNHCR representative Adel Yasmin explained. The rest, mostly Somalis, pass through reception centres, with about a third of them seeking UNHCR assistance to get to Kharaz camp.
Many of these hop off the buses in Aden before ever reaching the camp and go to Basateen or elsewhere in Yemen. Even those who get to Kharaz rarely stay for more than three months.
Kharaz, on a desolate wind-scoured plain where summer heat soars near 50 degrees Celsius (122 Fahrenheit), shelters 9,500 refugees in cinderblock huts. There are schools, clinics and food rations, but no jobs.
Mohammed Assanali, 35, an ethnic Oromo, reflected on his 10 years in the camp after fleeing his homeland in Ethiopia, where he was suspected of backing the outlawed Oromo Liberation Front.
"Look at me," he laughed bitterly in a courtyard where he has planted saplings in the dirt. "Just I am playing with my children. It’s a meaningless life. Sometimes it’s darkness."
Assanali, like many of the 650 Ethiopians in Kharaz, dares not leave the camp for fear he might be caught and deported.
Refugees in Kharaz are marooned in futility, unable to go back to their insecure homelands or to find work in Yemen.
The Basateen slum -- which resembles a miniature Mogadishu minus the gunmen -- is more squalid, but Somalis there are less isolated and can at least seek casual work in Aden.
"I couldn’t stand camp life," said a woman in a black scarf with orange flowers who gave her name as Fawzia. The 23-year-old has seven children and a runaway husband. She survives on casual domestic work, but has failed to pay her rent for six months.
"I hate myself, I hate my children, I have no future," she said vacantly. Beside her, a baby lay untended in its own vomit on the grubby blue carpet of her trash-filled shack.
UNHCR and its partner agencies working with Somali tribal elders do their best to combat social stresses in Basateen with micro-credits and self-reliance projects that help some women feed their children, even when their husbands have vanished.
But some are overwhelmed and even ask to return to Kharaz where they can get U.N. assistance. All need relief from the penury that fuels domestic violence and sometimes prostitution.
"Sometimes young girls come to Yemen, dreaming of a better life or of going to Saudi Arabia," said Aisha Said, a UNHCR social worker. "If they fail, maybe they do this prostitution or survival sex, but I can’t tell you how many do it."
(For other stories in a Reuters package from Yemen, please double-click on [ID:nL25174601])
(Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile)