Sunday 18 March 2012

Yemen - What Lies Ahead?

Michael Young

Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi was sworn in as president. Mohammed Huwais/Agence France-Presse - Getty Images.
In a sense, the people of Yemen have emerged largely victorious out of the Arab uprisings that have shaken the region since early 2011. In November last year, Yemen’s president of thirty-three years Ali Abdullah Saleh finally announced that he was going to step down amid mounting protest and rising violence. However he only announced this once he could be sure that he will be immune from any prosecution, and his family can still control most of Yemen including the armed forces. His successor, Abed-Rabbo Mansour Hadi, was sworn in as president just last month after elections which have been hailed as representing a ‘new beginning’ for Yemen (despite there being only one candidate to choose from on the ballot, and him winning by 99.6% of the vote). Yemen is therefore going through its first political transition for the first time in a generation, but what lies ahead for the poorest country in the Middle East which is on the verge of economic collapse and currently a hotspot for al-Qaeda?

The change in Yemen received much less Western media coverage than that prescribed to countries such as Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and arguably Bahrain. In recent years, the main stories to come out of Yemen have focused on the presence of affiliate ‘Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’ (AQAP) within the country, supposedly operating as an affiliate of al-Qaeda itself. But with the killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki by a US drone last year, which Obama labelled as a “major blow to al-Qaeda’s most operational affiliate”, it is clear that the West has taken upon itself to disrupt terrorist operations in the country. 

The situation in Yemen is important. Since the failed Christmas Day bombing of a US airliner over Detroit, and the failed Cargo Plane bombs in 2010, Yemen is now considered as a stronghold for al-Qaeda inspired terrorism – a place where terrorists can easily plan, plot and organise attacks against targets in Europe and the US. Any instability in Yemen provides terrorists with an opportunity to expand and recruit – in fact, it is thought that the West were initially hesitant to accept that Saleh must go, due to his compliance with the West over the issue of al-Qaeda and the fact that collapse of the regime and the resulting anarchy could enable al-Qaeda to take an even stronger presence in the country. Saleh had been submissive to the demands of the West and was a vital ally against al-Qaeda in the region, allowing the US to train Yemeni personnel in the fight against AQAP. 

Upon being sworn into office, Hadi vowed to continue the war on al-Qaeda in the country just like his predecessor. Yet the first terrorist incident in the country under the new regime occurred within just hours of his inauguration, when a car bomb in the south-east city of Mukalla exploded, killing 26. It is clear that the new regime is going to need a considerable amount of help from the West to combat al-Qaeda. Since the attempted Christmas Day and Cargo Plane bombings, the US recognises that it needs to invest heavily in counterterrorism in the country. It is reportedly spending tens or maybe hundreds of millions on it, mainly training Yemeni soldiers.

It is not simply al-Qaeda which is causing divisiveness in Yemen – the country has the problem of many different tribal factions competing for power. There are secessionist movements operating in a South and have been for some time – they are unlikely to be appeased by the Hadi. Rebel tribes have made themselves known in recent years, attacking oil pipelines which have made the availability of oil even scarcer – Yemen is forced to now import oil from neighbouring countries, driving up the price even further. There is also a serious water shortage, and it is thought that Sana’a could be the world’s first capital city to run out of water.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East, and its economy has been close to collapsing, even before the unrest started last year. Unemployment is high, food prices are constantly rising, and power cuts are daily – all of which contributed to the discontent against Saleh last year. It is thought that through this domestic struggle, and most notably through the poverty which is rife in the country, that al-Qaeda is managing to garner support.

It is unclear what the UK’s current attitude is towards Yemen. The government seems to be acting prudent, largely leaving the US to combat the al-Qaeda splinter group within the country. Hopefully the regime change will bring about the stability that the Yemeni people so badly need, and Hadi will address the internal problems that are not only plaguing the country’s economy but also strengthening al-Qaeda. A strong, stable and anti-extremist Yemen is in the interest of the UK and the West – it is one of the only countries in the region that al-Qaeda seem currently able to operate with ease. From a counterterrorism perspective, securing Yemen should be a foreign policy objective for 2012.

Friday 9 March 2012

North African Migration Problem Resurfaces

Jevon Whitby

Immigration as an age-old problem has resurfaced. noborder network.
With the Arab Spring almost resolved, will the West approve of the 'new' North Africa? Despite the  region's new political regimes, one age-old problem remains for Europe: immigration. This week the issue resurfaced in the media once again as Italy was censured for sending Eritrean and Somalian migrants back to Libya in 2009, a move which the European court in Strasbourg ruled required compensation of $20,000 to each of the men in question who were forcibly returned to Tripoli.

The proximity of Italy and Spain with North Africa has always caused particular problems regarding illegal immigration to Europe, resulting in a series of 'deals' between North African and European states to impose strict immigration controls.

In 2008 the problem seemed to be curtailed by a 'friendship pact' between Italy and Libya to deport migrants back to the North African Coast, an arrangement which groups such as Human Rights Watch have insisted was a circumvention of Italy's humanitarian obligations. Such deals are not unusual however, Spanish authorities agreed $390m in aid for Morocco in return for harsh immigration limits imposed in 2003, although Italy's preventative measures remain by far the most expensive precedent at $5 billion. Understandably, with Italy's involvement in Operation Odyssey Dawn and the fall of 'Gaddafi's Libya,' their immigration control arrangements were effectively ended as of 2011.

Illegal immigration has of course worsened due to the disorder of the Arab Spring. Despite dramatically falling numbers since the record estimated influx of 54,000 migrants in 2008 and Italy's subsequent immigration control pact with Libya, wars and strife have displaced large groups of people during the past year, causing the number of North Africans attempting to cross the Mediterranean to rise to 58,000 arrivals a year in 2011. In the first three months of 2011 alone, an estimated 18,000 Tunisians arrived in 'boats' at the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa. The UNHRC declared 2011 the 'deadliest year,' with an estimated 1,500 migrants killed from failed crossings.

As ever with immigration issues, the problem is a central policy issue for a number of nations aside from those nearest the Mediterranean. Once into Europe, many immigrants continue north to Germany, France and the UK, seeking work despite Europe's severe unemployment problem with 24 million people unemployed. In 2011, the French government was even prepared to pay 300 Euros to each Tunisian who was prepared to volunteer to return home, although as the BBC showed, some migrants pay in excess of 1000 Euros to be smuggled into Europe by traffickers. The United Kingdom currently stands as the nation with the largest Somali community in Europe, an estimated 108,000 as of March 2010, making the issue universally important for even the furthest corners of the EU.

What might be done to stem the tide of new immigrants attempting a dangerous voyage to an ever hostile Europe? Order and stability in Libya and Tunisia will of course deter marginal cases from the difficult crossing, as does seasonal bad weather. As for immigrants from further south, British Government attempts to re-stabilise Somalia came to a head in February with the 'London Conference on Somalia.' Representatives from forty governments were present, aiming to continue the work of pro-government forces and put in place what the Foreign Office described as a 'sustainable funding package' for African peacekeeping forces from Ethiopia and Kenya. 

Last May, in a speech to the House of Commons, the 'consequences for migration' were listed as the third reason for intervening in Libya. However at this February's Conference, the more prioritised dangers are the issues of piracy and terrorism. It is hoped that humanitarian assistance and political stability can encourage many migrants to stay in Somalia, although Foreign Secretary William Hague acknowledged the ambitious nature and long-term nature of the results stating: 'We cannot turn Somalia around with one conference.' 

In the short term, some form of strict border control, as Italy implemented in 2008, will be needed once again should the immigration problem continue at 2011 levels. The EU has shown willing to deploy its own border controls if necessary: tasking Frontex (the European border security agency) in February 2011 to begin 'Operation Hermes' and patrol the Mediterranean with naval vessels. Here indeed the international nature of the problem is most obvious: the operation included thirteen of the EU's member states.

It is a grim indictment of the situation that some of the compensation legally owed to the migrants in question cannot be paid, for two are already feared dead from a failed second crossing. Nevertheless given the morally dubious high rate of success from Italy's last arrangement with Libya, and now NATO nations being able to 'call in favours' with new North African governments, it seems likely that 2011 will have been a limited window for illegal immigration from the region; one soon to be closed.