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Gulf of Yemen boatpeople motivated by insecurity, poverty at home

News Stories, 27 March 2008

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
A mother and her young children at the Kharaz camp in Yemen.

MAY'FAA, Yemen, March 27 (UNHCR) Jeilany winced as a medical assistant examined his swollen foot. The Ethiopian was still in pain four days after he injured the foot when he was forced off a smuggler's boat just off the coast of Yemen.

Others have suffered far worse while attempting the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing in search of safety or a better future. Last year, at least 27,000 people reached Yemen but some 1,400 died or were missing, according to UNHCR figures. Of those who reached land alive, 7,010 were assisted by UNHCR in the May'faa reception centre. They came mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Jeilany and fellow Ethiopian passenger Mussa, talking to UNHCR at the May'faa centre, said they and about 120 other desperate people in their boat had each paid smugglers about US$45 to bring them to Yemen.

They claimed that the smugglers took the passengers' food and water and beat them with sticks and an iron bar throughout the harrowing trip. But that wasn't the end of it. "When we got close to the Yemeni shore, they confiscated all of our belongings and forced us off the boat," Jeilany recounted. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs.

Both men are from the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia and said they had been jailed for their political beliefs. They fled, fearing they would be arrested again. Now they just want to recover and apply for asylum.

The two men are not the only ones who have fled their homes because of security concerns. Aisha, who was being registered at the centre with her daughter and three grandchildren hours after arriving aboard a small vessel on a Yemeni beach, fled growing conflict in Somalia. The 60-year-old and her relatives had enjoyed a trouble-free, if exhausting, crossing and were not mistreated en route.

Relieved to have reached Yemen alive, Aisha was leading her family to the shade of a small shelter at the May'faa centre when she was accosted and embraced by another woman who had also survived the Gulf of Aden passage.

Overcome by emotion, the two women wept. They had met in the dusty northern Somalia port of Bossaso during the long wait for a boat. They left separately, not knowing if they would see each other again on the other side.

The new arrivals stay a few days at the reception centre in May'faa, where they are given clothing, blankets and soap before being transferred to Kharaz, an isolated refugee camp in the desert some 180 kilometres from the port city of Aden.

Aisha said she took the decision to leave Somalia after her brother was killed in front of her in the capital, Mogadishu, about a month ago. After his murder, she said militiamen stole all of his property and she knew she had to find a way out.

"Day after day the situation in Somalia is getting worse," said Aisha, "So I got to the point that I decided that it's now or never and that we had to come to Yemen. When I left Somalia, I was crying because I was afraid, but I had to do it."

The situation is so bad that even those who endured years of war for more than a decade are now trying to escape Mogadishu. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 200,000 Somalis living in Yemen as refugees.

Settled on the cool concrete in the women's section of the reception centre, the three generations of Aisha's family ate their first hot meal in more than 48 hours. They felt safe at last, but their future remained very uncertain.

By Leigh Foster in May'faa, Yemen

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UNHCR country pages

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

2011 Yemen: Risking All for a Better Future

Plagued by violence, drought and poverty, thousands of people in the Horn of Africa leave their homes out of desperation every year. Seeking safety or a better life, these civilians - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - make the dangerous journey through Somalia to the northern port of Bossaso.

Once there, they pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden on smugglers' boats. They often wait for weeks in Bossaso's safe houses or temporary homes until a sudden call prompts their departure under the veil of night, crammed into small rickety boats.

Out at sea, they are at the whim of smugglers. Some passengers get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before reaching the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds of innocent people who die en route.

The Yemen-based Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS) has been helping these people since 1995. On September 13, 2011 UNHCR announced that the NGO had won this year's Nansen Refugee Award for its tireless efforts to assist people arriving from the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.

2011 Yemen: Risking All for a Better Future

Yemeni humanitarian aid group wins 2011 Nansen Refugee Award

The founder and staff of the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS), a humanitarian organization in Yemen, has won the 2011 Nansen Refugee Award for their work in aiding and rescuing refugees and migrants who make the dangerous sea journey across the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa. View a slideshow of the group's life-saving work, patrolling the beaches of southern Yemen for new arrivals and providing food, shelter and medical care to those who survive the dangerous journey.

Yemeni humanitarian aid group wins 2011 Nansen Refugee Award

Yemeni NGO wins Nansen AwardPlay video

Yemeni NGO wins Nansen Award

The Society for Humanitarian Solidarity wins the 2011 Nansen Refugee Award for helping tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who make the treacherous journey to Yemen on smugglers' boats.
Yemen: Waiting for peacePlay video

Yemen: Waiting for peace

The Yemeni government has declared the war in the north is over. But most of the roughly 280,000 people uprooted by the violence are reluctant to return home.
Yemen: Further DisplacementPlay video

Yemen: Further Displacement

In Yemen the fighting continues in the north. UNHCR reports that the numbers of families fleeing is mounting and camps for the displaced are becoming crowded.