Somali civilians wait for sailing season to cross the Gulf of Aden

The 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.

A group of men wait in a cove near Bossaso for a boat to take them across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.  © UNHCR / K. McKinsey

NAIROBI, Kenya, July 28 (UNHCR) - The 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.

Since a fresh wave of violence erupted in the Somali capital on May 7, some 12,000 people have reached and found temporary shelter in the northern Somalia port of Bossaso, according to UNHCR's network of partners in the beleaguered country.

Most are waiting for the first opportunity offered by smugglers to take the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden. These internally displaced people (IDP) are among some 230,000 Somalis who have been forced to leave their homes because of the fighting between Al-Shabaab and Hisb-ul-Islam militia groups and government forces.

UNHCR's 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 who want to cross to 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 until September, when winds are more favourable.

Last year, more than 50,000 new arrivals reached Yemen's shores - a 70 percent increase from 2007. The trend has continued during the first six months of this year, with around 30,000 new arrivals - the total for the whole of 2007. It's a dangerous journey.

More than 1,000 people 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.

Yemen recognizes Somalis as refugees on a prima facie basis. Somali refugees are given the option of shelter at the Kharaz refugee camp located 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 cooperation with other UN agencies as well as local and international non-governmental organizations. In addition to the camp population, there are tens of thousands of refugees who have opted to stay in urban areas around the country.