Deaths in Mozambique highlight risks faced by asylum-seekers heading south

News Stories, 8 February 2011

© UNHCR/M.Fernandes
Exhausted Ethiopians rest under a tree in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province after walking from the coast on their way south earlier this year.

PRETORIA, South Africa, February 8 (UNHCR) The deaths by suffocation of eight Ethiopians travelling through Mozambique has highlighted the little-publicized dangers that asylum-seekers trying to reach South Africa face.

Police said the eight asylum-seekers died in a closed container truck on February 2. They were among a group of 26 young Ethiopian men who were trying to reach South Africa from the Maratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique.

The truck driver reportedly only realized that the eight had suffocated when he made a stop at Mocuba, seven hours after leaving the camp. The truck was also carrying a cargo of cooking oil.

Three others in the group had to be hospitalized. They have since been discharged and taken back to Maratane with the other survivors. The truck driver has been arrested and a police investigation launched.

The dangers for people fleeing the Horn of Africa and crossing the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea to Yemen are well documented. But those heading south also face a perilous journey.

"We believe the risks for those heading southwards through East Africa or via Indian Ocean routes are substantial," said Sanda Kimbimbi, UNHCR's Pretoria-based regional representative.

In January, UNHCR received reports that eight Somali and three Ethiopian asylum-seekers had drowned off the coast of Mozambique. In May, last year, nine Somalis also drowned off Mozambique in the search for safety.

The dangers were highlighted in a report published last month by UNHCR and Oxford University's Refugee Studies Centre and entitled: "In Harms Way: The Irregular Movement of Migrants to Southern Africa from the Horn and Great Lakes Regions."

Mozambique's Maratane camp is a stopping point for many on the journey southwards. Almost 11,000 Somali and Ethiopian asylum-seekers arrived at the camp in the year up to January. Of these 6,660 were Somalis, while the remaining 4,325 were from Ethiopia. UNHCR estimates that 2,500 Ethiopians headed towards South Africa from the Maratane camp last year.

As more people flee from the Horn of Africa to Mozambique, UNHCR is working closely with the Mozambique authorities to improve conditions in the Maratane camp, which has become congested under the weight of recent arrivals.

By Tina Ghelli in Pretoria, South Africa