Gulf of Yemen boatpeople motivated by insecurity, poverty at home

News Stories, 27 March 2008

© UNHCR/J.Bj√∂rgvinsson
A mother and her young children at the Kharaz camp in Yemen.

MAY'FAA, Yemen, March 27 (UNHCR) Jeilany winced as a medical assistant examined his swollen foot. The Ethiopian was still in pain four days after he injured the foot when he was forced off a smuggler's boat just off the coast of Yemen.

Others have suffered far worse while attempting the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing in search of safety or a better future. Last year, at least 27,000 people reached Yemen but some 1,400 died or were missing, according to UNHCR figures. Of those who reached land alive, 7,010 were assisted by UNHCR in the May'faa reception centre. They came mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia.

Jeilany and fellow Ethiopian passenger Mussa, talking to UNHCR at the May'faa centre, said they and about 120 other desperate people in their boat had each paid smugglers about US$45 to bring them to Yemen.

They claimed that the smugglers took the passengers' food and water and beat them with sticks and an iron bar throughout the harrowing trip. But that wasn't the end of it. "When we got close to the Yemeni shore, they confiscated all of our belongings and forced us off the boat," Jeilany recounted. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs.

Both men are from the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia and said they had been jailed for their political beliefs. They fled, fearing they would be arrested again. Now they just want to recover and apply for asylum.

The two men are not the only ones who have fled their homes because of security concerns. Aisha, who was being registered at the centre with her daughter and three grandchildren hours after arriving aboard a small vessel on a Yemeni beach, fled growing conflict in Somalia. The 60-year-old and her relatives had enjoyed a trouble-free, if exhausting, crossing and were not mistreated en route.

Relieved to have reached Yemen alive, Aisha was leading her family to the shade of a small shelter at the May'faa centre when she was accosted and embraced by another woman who had also survived the Gulf of Aden passage.

Overcome by emotion, the two women wept. They had met in the dusty northern Somalia port of Bossaso during the long wait for a boat. They left separately, not knowing if they would see each other again on the other side.

The new arrivals stay a few days at the reception centre in May'faa, where they are given clothing, blankets and soap before being transferred to Kharaz, an isolated refugee camp in the desert some 180 kilometres from the port city of Aden.

Aisha said she took the decision to leave Somalia after her brother was killed in front of her in the capital, Mogadishu, about a month ago. After his murder, she said militiamen stole all of his property and she knew she had to find a way out.

"Day after day the situation in Somalia is getting worse," said Aisha, "So I got to the point that I decided that it's now or never and that we had to come to Yemen. When I left Somalia, I was crying because I was afraid, but I had to do it."

The situation is so bad that even those who endured years of war for more than a decade are now trying to escape Mogadishu. UNHCR estimates that there are at least 200,000 Somalis living in Yemen as refugees.

Settled on the cool concrete in the women's section of the reception centre, the three generations of Aisha's family ate their first hot meal in more than 48 hours. They felt safe at last, but their future remained very uncertain.

By Leigh Foster in May'faa, Yemen