Yemeni NGO to receive Nansen Refugee Award for life-saving work

News Stories, 13 September 2011

© SHS
The Society for Humanitarian Solidarity patrols 600 km of the Yemeni coast to help boat arrivals on the Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.

GENEVA, September 13 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency announced today that its annual Nansen Refugee Award will honour a Yemen-based non-governmental organization, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS), for its life-saving work with refugees and migrants who make the treacherous sea journey to Yemen.

Every year thousands of refugees and migrants, desperate to escape violence, drought and poverty in the Horn of Africa, put their lives in the hands of human smugglers and cross the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden in crowded and often unseaworthy boats. Some are beaten or abused, arriving traumatized and ill on the Yemeni coast.

So far in 2011, more than 60,000 people have made sea crossings to Yemen as many as the combined number of arrivals in the last three years. It is estimated that at least 120 people drowned trying to make the journey this year.

SHS was founded by Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy in 1995 to help people arriving by boat from Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa, as well as the impoverished local communities that hosted them. While the number of arrivals was low in the initial years, it has risen sharply 16 years later. In recent weeks, daily arrivals have averaged more than 300 people.

Today, SHS staff work around the clock to monitor about a third of Yemen's 2,000 kilometre-long coastline, pick up survivors, provide emergency care and, all too often, bury those who die en route.

"Thousands of refugees owe their survival to the people working for the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, announcing the recipient of the Nansen Refugee Award in Geneva on Tuesday. "Their complete dedication to the service of mankind deserves this global recognition and support."

SHS founder Al-Hamairy, who is being honoured together with his staff of 290, said, "Winning the Nansen Award has given us a big boost. Our work is a humanitarian duty… that has to be done under any circumstance." He added that he would use the Nansen platform to call on the international community to "intensify efforts to improve the situation in Somalia to help dissuade people from attempting the risky crossing."

The Nansen Refugee Award is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It includes a $100,000 prize that the winner can donate to a cause of his or her choice. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fritdjof Nansen, a Norwegian, scientist, explorer and statesman and the first League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Previous winners include British photojournalist Alixandra Fazzina, US Senator Edward Kennedy, Japanese optometrist Akio Kanai and Italian opera singer Luciano Pavarotti.

This year's Nansen Award Ceremony will take place in Geneva on October 3.

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The Nansen Refugee Award

The Nansen Refugee Award

Given to individuals or organizations for outstanding service in the cause of refugees.

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

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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

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.

New Arrivals in Yemen

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

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Nansen Biography

Fridtjof Nansen was a scientist, polar explorer, diplomat, statesman and humanist, with a deep compassion for his fellow human beings. In 1921 Nansen was appointed the League of Nations' first High Commissioner for Refugees and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize the following year in recognition of his work for refugees. UNHCR established the Nansen Refugee Award in his honour in 1954.

Nansen Biography

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

UNHCR's annual Nansen Refugee Award was posthumously awarded to Senator Edward Kennedy at a ceremony in Washington DC on October 29 for his life-long commitment to refugee rights. Kennedy's wife, Victoria, accepted the award on behalf of her late husband. In presenting the award, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, praised the "vision and commitment" of Senator Kennedy in his support for the displaced.

The prize money of US$100,000 will be donated to the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate, where it will be used to train the next generation of leaders dedicated to the cause of refugee advocacy. The Nansen Award is given to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees. It was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian polar explorer, scientist and the first global High Commissioner for Refugees.

Nansen Award presentation for the late Senator Edward Kennedy

The 2011 Nansen Refugee Award

At this year's Nansen Refugee Award presentation ceremony in Geneva, the UN refugee agency paid tribute to award-winning American actress Angelina Jolie and Yemeni humanitarian aid group, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity, for their outstanding work for refugees over many years.

Jolie was recognized for completing 10 years as UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador. The American actress joined UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres to present the Nansen Award to Nasser Salim Ali Al-Hamairy for his NGO's live-saving work in helping tens of thousands of desperate boat people arriving on the coast of Yemen from the Horn of Africa.

The Nansen Refugee Award was created in 1954 in honour of Fridtjof Nansen, the legendary Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat and politician who in the 1920s became the first international High Commissioner for Refugees. It is given annually to an individual or organization for outstanding work on behalf of refugees and consists of a commemorative medal and a US$100,000 prize donated by the governments of Switzerland and Norway.

The 2011 Nansen Refugee Award

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