A record 107,500 people reach Yemen in 2012 after risky sea crossing

News Stories, 15 January 2013

Aid workers from a UNHCR partner organization help people who have just reached the Yemeni shore by boat.

GENEVA, January 15 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency announced on Tuesday that some 107,500 African refugees and migrants made the perilous sea journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2012, the largest such influx since UNHCR began compiling these statistics in 2006. The previous record high was in 2011, when more than 103,000 people arrived in Yemen on smugglers' boats.

Some 84,000, or more than 80 per cent, of the arrivals were Ethiopian nationals, while Somali refugees constituted the rest. Many migrants use Yemen as a transit stop en route to states in the Persian Gulf.

Despite economic and security difficulties last year, Yemen continued to receive and host a record number of people fleeing the Horn of Africa in search of safety, protection and better economic conditions. All Somali arrivals are automatically recognized as refugees by Yemeni authorities.

UNHCR conducts refugee status determination for Ethiopians and other nationalities seeking asylum in Yemen. A very low percentage of Ethiopian arrivals decide to seek asylum, either due to a lack of awareness and access to asylum mechanisms or because they do not meet the criteria to be recognized as refugees. However, for the vast majority of Ethiopian migrants protection space is nearly non-existent and they are often extremely vulnerable.

In Yemen, staff from UNHCR and its local partners conduct daily patrols along the Gulf of Aden coast to provide assistance to all new arrivals that pass through strategically positioned reception and transit centres. However, there are substantial difficulties in responding to the various protection risks that new arrivals face in transit and upon arrival in Yemen.

Boats crossing to Yemen are often overcrowded and smugglers, in order to avoid the Yemeni coastguard, sometimes force the passengers into the water, often far from the shore and in stormy weather. UNHCR estimates that at least 100 people have drowned or gone missing while trying to cross the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea in 2012.

New arrivals are at risk of exploitation, violence and sexual abuse. The situation is particularly difficult along the Red Sea coast, where Yemeni smugglers and traffickers are often waiting to receive new arrivals. Traffickers mainly target Ethiopians looking to travel onwards to Persian Gulf states.

Conflict and instability in the north and south of the country has curbed the ability of Yemeni authorities to address trafficking. In 2012, there was a proliferation in smuggling and trafficking and a significant increase in reported cases of violence and abuse perpetrated against new arrivals. The increased presence of armed gangs of smugglers and traffickers is an additional risk to aid workers.

"The continually growing mixed migration movement from the Horn of Africa is an issue affecting the region beyond Yemen," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva on Tuesday. "We welcome the decision of the authorities in [the Yemen capital] Sana'a to host a regional conference this year with UNHCR as part of wider efforts to develop a strategy to manage the flow of mixed migrants, and prevent and reduce smuggling and trafficking in the region."

Yemen is a historic transit hub for migrants and stands out in the region for its hospitality towards refugees. The country currently hosts more than 236,000 refugees, virtually all of them of Somali origin. There are also more than 300,000 internally displaced Yemeni civilians in the north due to recurring conflict since 2004.

Meanwhile, in the south, more than 100,000 internally displaced people have returned to their areas of origin in Abyan governorate as the conflict subsided and conditions improved. UNHCR has been advocating with the government and international community to ensure the sustainability of these returns.

On December 30, the UN refugee agency airlifted emergency relief items to Aden, including blankets, plastic sheets and sleeping mats for the returnees. The aid and further assistance arriving by sea will help some 30,000 vulnerable Yemeni families.




UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

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


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to ServePlay video

Ethiopia: Education, A Refugee's Call to Serve

War forced Lim Bol Thong to flee South Sudan, putting his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold. As a refugee in the Kule camp in Gambella, Ethiopia, he has found another way to serve. Just 21 years old, Lim started teaching chemistry at the school's primary school and last year was promoted to Vice Principal.
Return to SomaliaPlay video

Return to Somalia

Ali and his family are ready to return to Somalia after living in Dadaab refugee camp for the past five years. We follow their journey from packing up their home in the camp to settling into their new life back in Somalia.
Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.