Somalis in Djibouti on the increase

Briefing Notes, 5 February 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 5 February 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Growing numbers of Somali asylum seekers and migrants are fleeing to Djibouti in what may become a new migration route from war-ravaged Somalia to Djibouti and on to the Middle East.

In 2007, a total of 700 Somali asylum seekers fled to Djibouti. So far this year, more than 550 asylum seekers and migrants have already crossed from north-west Somalia, also known as Somaliland, into Djibouti 400 of them during the month of January. At the port town of Obock, north of the Djibouti capital, the number of people leaving the port by small boats has also risen steadily according to port authorities.

During a recent visit to Loyada, a border crossing between Somaliland and Djibouti, border authorities told a joint team of UNHCR and government officials that there is a continuous flow of asylum seekers who group in the no-man's land as they seek to gain entry into Djibouti. Previously, some asylum seekers would make a treacherous journey around the hilly region separating Djibouti and Somaliland to avoid being stranded at the border for days. UNHCR and government authorities have now intervened with border officials to request that the Somali asylum seekers be allowed entry in accordance with Djibouti's international obligations. The government of Djibouti and UNHCR are now looking at possibilities of setting up a reception facility close to the border to receive and screen the asylum seekers before transferring them to Ali Addeh camp which is sheltering some 7,000 refugees. Some 3,500 of these refugees are from south and central Somalia with around 2,800 from Somaliland.

Border authorities also indicate that smugglers have begun to roam the no-man's land offering to take the mixed group of asylum seekers and migrants by boat from an area around the Somaliland town of Zeila, off the coast of the Gulf of Aden, directly to Yemen or to the north of Djibouti before arranging their crossing to Yemen.

Many of those coming into Djibouti are from the south/central Somalia, including the Somali capital, Mogadishu, Baidoa and adjacent areas, as well as Beletweyne. Many say they have spent several months in other towns such as Galcayo, Bossasso and Hargeisa before making their way to Djibouti. Others say they have lived in settlements for displaced people inside Somalia but have not received adequate assistance and have had no means of livelihood. Those crossing the border are mainly young single people, some of whom are hoping to continue to Yemen.

UNHCR continues to call for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. In 2007 alone, more than 29,500 people arrived on the shores of Yemen while over 1,400 died or remained missing presumed dead while making the hazardous journey.

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Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

An alarming number of people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Over a three-week period in late 2005, at least 150 people perished while making the journey. These deaths are frequently the result of overcrowded boats capsizing or breaking down and going adrift without food or water. Those who survive the voyage to Yemen often give brutal accounts of smugglers beating passengers or forcing them overboard while still far off shore – in some instances with their hands and feet bound.

In response, UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate Ethiopian and Somali refugees and migrants falling prey to ruthless smugglers in a bid to reach Yemen and beyond. The refugee agency has also been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

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