Fighting in Somalia forces more refugees across the Gulf of Aden

Briefing Notes, 28 July 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 28 July 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The ongoing fighting in Mogadishu and central Somalia is pushing thousands of Somali civilians to risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden and seek asylum in Yemen.

According to our network of partners in Somalia, some 12,000 people have reached and found temporary shelter in the town of Bossaso in northern Somalia since 7 May. There, a majority of them are waiting for the first opportunity offered by smugglers to take the perilous journey across the Gulf. These internally displaced people (IDPs) are part of some 232,000 Somalis who have been forced to leave their homes since 7 May when the fighting between Al-Shabaab and Hisb-ul-Islam militia groups and government forces erupted in several districts of the Somali capital.

Our partners in Bossaso report that the areas where potential migrants usually settle are getting more and more crowded and smugglers are already collecting bookings and cash from Somalis bound for Yemen. As the sea is already very dangerous because of the prevailing weather conditions, the majority of the people are expected to camp in Bossaso and wait for September, when winds are more favourable.

In 2008, more than 50,000 new arrivals reached Yemen's shores a 70% increase from 2007. The trend has continued during the first six months of 2009 with around 30,000 new arrivals the total for the whole of 2007. It's a dangerous journey. More than 1,000 drowned en route in 2008 as they were thrown overboard or forced to disembark too far from the shore by unscrupulous smugglers. So far this year, almost 300 have died or gone missing.

The smuggling phenomenon places increasing strain on Yemen's limited resources and poses more challenges to the Government's efforts to balance its obligations under international law with the need to protect the country from illegal entry.

As new arrivals land on the shores of Yemen, our partners pick them up and take them to one of our reception centres where UNHCR, through its partners, registers new arrivals and provides basic assistance such as food, shelter, medical assistance and support for a period of 2-3 days while new arrivals recover from their flight to safety.

The Government of Yemen recognizes Somalis as refugees on a prima facie basis. Somali refugees are given the option of shelter at the Kharaz refugee camp located in Lahj Governorate, around two hours' drive west of Aden. In Kharaz, they receive the legal and physical protection and assistance accorded refugees. There are some 13,000 mainly Somali refugees living in the camp which is fully serviced by UNHCR in co-operation with other UN agencies as well as local and international NGOs. In addition to the camp population, there are tens of thousands of refugees who have opted to stay in urban areas around the country.