Oman provides sanctuary for Yemenis fleeing conflict

Oman does not publicly report on the number of Yemeni refugees living within its borders but government officials say about 2,500 are in the country, reports Saleh Al Shaibany

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MUSCAT // Freij Al Hadhrami wipes the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand before walking into his caravan office which he shares with five other people.

The 36-year-old, one of many Yemenis in Oman who escaped his war-torn country, is an engineer working for an international construction company in Muscat.

Mr Al Hadhrami supervises labourers in a gruelling ten-hour shift — from 7am to 5pm — and has only one day off each week.

He is a civil engineer but is paid only 450 Omani rials (Dh4,200) a month — one third of what a man of his qualifications usually gets paid.

Despite the working conditions, he is happy to be in Oman.

"I am grateful to the government of Oman for accepting us here. Our block of flats [in Yemen] was bombed. We were lucky to escape unhurt but my uncle, who lived in the same building did not survive," he told The National.

Mr Al Hadhrami lives with his wife and two children in a government housing area provided for refugees.

He does not have a work permit, as refugees in the country are not allowed to work.

“I am not supposed to work here but I need money to send back to my parents and two sisters,” he said.

Oman does not publicly report on the number of Yemeni refugees living within its borders but government officials say about 2,500 are in the country.

“We welcome them here out of humanitarian ground but in a much filtered way,” said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Most of them had lost their families in the current hostile situation or sustained serious injuries and receive medical attention. We put them in shelters and look after their welfare until the situation in their country improves.”

In a restaurant in the backstreets of Muscat, another Yemeni, 23-year-old Ali Al Shammas, works as an assistant cook from 3pm to 1am every day.

Both his father and older brother died in an air raid fourteen months ago back home in Sanaa. He also lives in a government shelter provided with three meals but no cash in hand. He is paid only 220 rials a month, and most of it goes to his mother and younger sister in Yemen.

“I cook Yemeni food here. Most of the recipes are from my mother. The work is hard and the pay is not great but I don’t have a choice,” said Mr Al Shammas. “At least Oman has given me an opportunity to look after my family. They need the money because my father is dead now.”

Said Al Farsi, an Omani national who owns a brick factory in the northern part of Muscat says he has hired six Yemenis on humanitarian grounds. He says the Omani police turn a blind eye to it as long as the Yemenis do not engage in any criminal activities. He does not know if any of them who are working illegally in Oman have run into trouble.

“It is a sensitive issue even for the government. The authorities know that Yemenis with refugee status work but they look the other way. Do I take advantage of them with the way I pay them? I don’t think so. I need cheap labour and they need to send money home. It works both ways,” Mr Al Farsi said.

Three of the Yemeni workers he hired were in Oman to receive medical treatment, he said. They did not return home after the treatment.

Health ministry sources said that since the outbreak of the war, about 1,200 injured Yemeni patients have been given medical care in Oman.

Oman has been lauded by the United Nations and the European Union for its assistance to those affected by the conflict in Yemen, which began when the Iran-backed Houthi rebels overran the capital of Sanaa in September 2014.

A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in March 2015 to restore the internationally-recognised president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi after he fled Sanaa from the Houthis, who are fighting in an alliance with troops loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Since then, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes and many lack adequate food and medical care. More than 10,000 people have been killed, according to UN estimates.

Political analysts said the financial burden of providing medical assistance or refugee status could become more difficult for Oman if the conflict continues.

“It is not cheap to treat hundreds of people with bad injuries. Some of them stay in hospitals for weeks. Some never return home because either they have no families to return to or lost contact with them,” said writer and political analyst Khalfan Al Maqbali.

“It is definitely going to be a burden to Oman if the war situation escalates in Yemen.”