Eight asylum-seekers suffocate in Mozambique en route to South Africa

Briefing Notes, 8 February 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 8 February 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

Over the weekend, UNHCR learned of the deaths by suffocation on 2 February of eight Ethiopian asylum-seekers aboard a closed container truck in Mozambique. Police say the eight were among a group of 26 young Ethiopian men who were trying to reach South Africa from the Maratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique.

The truck driver reportedly only realized that the eight had suffocated when he made a stop at Mocuba, after seven hours of driving from the camp. The truck was also loaded with oil. Three others in the group had to be hospitalized. They have since been discharged.

The dangers for people fleeing the Horn of Africa northwards across the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea are relatively well known. We believe the risks for those heading southwards through East Africa or via Indian Ocean routes are also substantial. In January, UNHCR received reports that eight Somali and three Ethiopian asylum-seekers had drowned off the coast of Mozambique. In May, last year, nine Somalis also drowned off Mozambique in the search for safety.

Mozambique's Maratane camp is a stopping point for many on this journey. 10,985 Somali and Ethiopian asylum-seekers arrived at the camp between January 2010 and January 2011. Of these 6,660 are Somalis, while the remaining 4,325 are from Ethiopia. We estimate that 2,500 Ethiopians headed towards South Africa from the Maratane camp last year.

As more people flee from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique, UNHCR is working closely with the Mozambique authorities to improve conditions in the Maratane camp, which has become congested under the weight of recent arrivals.

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Crisis in Horn of Africa

Tens of thousands of Somalis are fleeing conflict and drought into Djibouti, Ethiopia and Kenya.

New arrivals in Ethiopia: Remote Dolo Ado becomes a safe haven for 10,000 Somalis fleeing violence

Since the beginning of this year an estimated 10,000 Somalis have crossed the border and sought shelter in Dolo Ado, a remote, sun-scorched and predominantly Somali corner of south-east Ethiopia. Most have fled insecurity, following the withdrawal of Ethiopian troops from south and central Somalia and the takeover of these areas by insurgent elements. At the peak of the influx in early February 2009, about 150 people were crossing the border each day.

In reponse, a UNHCR emergency team was sent to help run a transit centre in Dolo Ado. In addition, UNHCR dispatched convoys carrying emergency aid, including mosquito nets, blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and plastic sheets. Relief efforts are being coordinated with other UN agencies and NGOs to ensure needs are being met.

Although a number of displaced Somalis within south and central Somalia have started to return, mainly to Mogadishu, many Somalis remain in Dolo Ado in need of protection. Given the poor prospects for repatriation in the foreseeable future, a camp is now under development and refugees are being screened.

New arrivals in Ethiopia: Remote Dolo Ado becomes a safe haven for 10,000 Somalis fleeing violence

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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

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

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