Almost 64,000 risk the high seas to Yemen in first seven months

News Stories, 28 August 2012

© SHS/A.S.Hussein
Exhausted new arrivals recover on a beach after crossing the ocean to southern Yemen.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 28 (UNHCR) The flow of refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa across the perilous high seas to Yemen hit a record total of more than 63,800 in the first seven months of the year.

The January to July figure was up 30 per cent on the 48,700 recorded in the same period for 2011, which was itself a record year for crossings. Last year, more than 103,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea on smugglers' boats, the highest total since 2006 when UNHCR started collecting data on this route.

Once data for August is compiled, another spike in arrivals in Yemen is expected. Migrants who go to Yemen in the hope of reaching the Gulf states, usually try to depart during the fasting month of Ramadan because they think patrols on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia are more lax during this time.

Meanwhile, the figures for this year show a significant change in the composition of those making the crossing, with more Ethiopians risking the trip with help from smugglers operating along the shores of Somalia and Djibouti. More than 51,000 have crossed this year.

In previous years, Somali refugees have constituted between a quarter and a third of all arrivals to Yemen, but from January to July this year only one-in-six of those arriving were Somali nationals, who are automatically recognized as refugees in neighbouring countries due to the turmoil in their homeland.

A UNHCR spokesperson said the refugee agency's "primary concern is for those fleeing conflict and persecution and who are forced to resort to any available means to reach safety in neighbouring countries in this case, meaning taking boats operated by smugglers."

Some of the Ethiopians who reach Yemen decide to seek asylum. Most cite a lack of prospects and a difficult economic situation. To avoid detention and deportation, they attempt to evade contact with the Yemeni authorities. Reports of serious abuses of Ethiopians at the hands of smugglers have been increasing.

"We are also seeing disturbing trends in the way that boat crossings are being done. In addition to growth in the number of daily boat departures to Yemen from Djibouti, the smuggling process has now become so organized that those deciding to make this dangerous journey are using established money transfer systems to pay smugglers [rather than risk carrying cash]," the spokesperson said.

The vast majority are crossing the Red Sea from Obock, Djibouti, with the remainder crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somaliland and Puntland.

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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

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

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