Mixed migration between Horn of Africa and Yemen reaches record high

Briefing Notes, 18 November 2011

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 18 November 2011, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The number of refugees and migrants arriving in Yemen by boat was 12,545 last month the highest monthly total since UNHCR began compiling data about the mixed migration route between the Horn of Africa and Yemen in January 2006.

As well as exceeding the previous record of 12,079 arrivals in September, the October total brings to 84,656 the number of people who arrived in Yemen by sea between the start of January and the start of November more than the earlier annual record in 2009 of 77,000 people. Of this year's arrivals 23,079 are from Somalia; nearly all the remaining 61,577 people are Ethiopians. With the autumn sailing season still in full swing, we expect the numbers for 2011 to grow further.

Between 2006 and 2008 Somali refugees accounted for the majority of all arrivals in Yemen, but that has changed. Since 2009 Ethiopian migrants have constituted the largest group among those crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. From 2006 to 2011 their number has increased six fold from some 11,000 in 2006 to 61,000 between January and October this year.

The sailing patterns have also shifted significantly over the years. Initially, most of the crossings occurred in the Gulf of Aden where the journey from Somalia to Yemen takes three to four days. Since 2009 there has been increasing traffic on the Red Sea. There, the voyage from the Horn to Yemen, with boats now arriving at all times of day, lasts only a few hours. Today, three out of four boats reaching Yemen come ashore on the country's Red Sea coast.

Refugees from Somalia continue to cite conflict, insecurity, drought and the resulting famine as the main factors driving them to leave their country. Most arrive in Yemen unaware of the situation there, where insecurity makes further movement difficult and risky. Most Ethiopians say they left home because of a lack of economic and livelihood opportunities, but some have indicated they fled in fear of persecution or insecurity in their regions of origin.

As well as affecting refugees and migrants, the insecurity and fighting in many parts of Yemen also poses additional challenges and risks for our partners and our own staff. Our partners have been forced to reduce the number of convoys and take longer routes transporting refugees from the reception and transit centres along the Gulf coast to Kharaz refugee camp, some 130 kilometres west of Aden. Together with our partners we are informing all those in the reception and transit centres about the situation in Yemen. But many decide not to wait for transport and set off on foot towards Yemeni towns and cities often through conflict-affected areas.

We are concerned about an increasing trend of abductions, extortions, kidnappings and sexual assaults targeting refugees, and particularly Ethiopian migrants. While Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees upon arrival to Yemen and are generally left alone by smugglers, many Ethiopians are taken by smugglers to other Gulf states or held for ransom before they can have any contact with the authorities or UNHCR. The perpetrators are mainly smuggling gangs profiting from a reduced police presence in parts of Yemen, particularly along the Red Sea coast. We continue to provide medical and legal assistance as well as counseling to victims.

Yemen currently hosts more than 200,491 Somali refugees. In addition, an estimated 445,679 Yemeni civilians are displaced throughout the country. UNHCR and its partners continue to provide essential protection and assistance.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Aden, Edward Leposky on mobile: +967 71 222 4022
  • In Geneva: Andrej Mahecic on mobile +41 79 200 7617
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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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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.

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