Gulf of Aden conference urges more aid to help refugees in host countries

News Stories, 20 May 2008

© UNHCR/A.Fazzina
A striking portrait of a young girl in front of a shack on the coast of northern Somalia. She and her family will likely try to make the dangerous Gulf of Aden crossing.

SANA'A, Yemen, May 20 (UNHCR) A regional conference on refugee protection and migration in the Gulf of Aden wrapped up in the Yemen capital on Tuesday with delegates stressing the need for more assistance to support refugees in host countries.

"For 16 years, I feel that the world forgot about us, so I appeal to all of you and especially to our Arab brothers to help us, support us and visit us in Yemen," said an emotional Somali refugee woman, who has been living in Yemen for the past decade. "Yemen, a poor country, has borne the main burden of hosting us, so please help us."

UNHCR officials, including High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres at Monday's opening, have also called for more international help to ease the burden on host country Yemen, in particular.

"The humanitarian situation among refugees and migrants crossing the Gulf of Aden is deteriorating amid security concerns from countries in the region about piracy, smuggling and human trafficking," said Radhouane Nouicer, director of UNHCR's Middle East and North African bureau. "Yemen, which is in the heart of this crisis, is taking the heavy burden economically and socially with hardly any international support."

The two-day conference, gathering high-ranking government officials as well as representatives from civil society and international organizations, was convened in a bid to establish a regional mechanism and a plan of action on refugee protection and mixed migration in the Gulf of Aden region. It was co-organized by UNHCR and the Mixed Migration Task Force for Somalia.

A conference committee was working on final recommendations, but these would include strengthening border controls while ensuring identification and protection of refugees; working to improve the conditions which give rise to irregular movement of people; reducing human rights abuses against people making the dangerous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa to the Yemeni coast, according to documents seen by UNHCR.

The European Commission-funded meeting was also expected to call for improving the level of cooperation and coordination between the countries of origin of refugees and migrants and their countries of destination; and for the establishment of an effective method of information-sharing on population movements in the region.

"Today, we have made positive steps towards identifying the problems of refugee protection and mixed migration. We promise that UNHCR will follow up with all our efforts and enthusiasm on your recommendations and will continue to intervene to limit the human suffering of the victims and their host societies," said UNHCR's Nouicer.

During the conference, which attracted officials from Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen, Gulf Cooperation countries, the African Union and the European Commission as well as representatives of civil society and international organizations, participants discussed the challenges faced in the countries of departure, transit and arrival in their bid to develop appropriate responses.

A delegate from the Gulf acknowledged the difficulty in addressing these issues from a regional perspective, but said the conference was a first step towards the full involvement of countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council in the discussion.

The mixed flow of people across the Gulf of Aden includes a significant number of refugees. Yemen, despite meagre resources, has maintained an open-door policy to the refugees. But it has been calling for more support from the international community.

So far this year, more than 18,000 people have made the Gulf of Aden crossing aboard smugglers' boats, double the number for the same period a year ago. More than 400 people have died trying to make the voyage this year.

By Abeer Etefa in Sana'a, Yemen