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Record number of African refugees and migrants cross the Gulf of Aden in 2011

Briefing notes

Record number of African refugees and migrants cross the Gulf of Aden in 2011

20 January 2012

Despite growing instability and a worsening security in Yemen, a record 103,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from the Horn of Africa made the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden and the Red sea in 2011. Last year saw an almost 100 per cent increase from 2010 when 53,000 people made the same journey. The previous highest number of arrivals we have seen was in 2009 when 78,000 people made the journey. UNHCR has been gathering data on the mixed migration flow from the Horn since 2006.

Among those who made the crossing last year more than 130 are known to have drowned. Most of the new arrivals reach Yemen's shores in desperate condition - dehydrated, malnourished and often in shock. Those crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden face extreme risks and challenges at every stage of their journey - in their countries of origin, during transit, and on and after arrival in Yemen. These include physical and sexual violence as well as trafficking. Once in Yemen they face new difficulties including inadequate access to basic services such as shelter, water, food, emergency health care, limitations to the freedom of movement and lack of access to a means of livelihood.

The latest data also shows a striking increase in the number of Ethiopians arriving in Yemen - who now account for three out of every four arrivals. Until 2008, the majority of those making the crossing were Somali refugees fleeing violence and human rights abuses in their country. This trend shifted in 2009, since when Ethiopian nationals have been in the majority.

On arrival in Yemen Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees, which ensures access to documentation and relatively unhindered movement. Some 25,500 Somali refugees arrived in Yemen in 2011 alone, bringing the total to more than 202,000. Together with our partners we are managing a network of reception centres along the coast, providing protection and assistance.

For Ethiopians, the situation in Yemen is far more challenging and dangerous. Out of some 76,000 who arrived in 2011 every fifth applied for asylum in Yemen. That is a ten per cent increase in comparison to 2010.

Many Ethiopian arrivals still say they left home because of a lack of economic and livelihood opportunities. As economic migrants they see Yemen as a transit country. Fearing detention and deportation Ethiopian migrants avoid contact with the authorities as they look for ways to reach other Gulf States. They routinely experience robbery, abuse, and extortion at the hands of smugglers and traffickers.

We are particularly alarmed by an incident earlier this week in which three Ethiopians were killed by smugglers operating along Yemen's Red Sea coast. According to initial reports, the Ethiopians were shot while trying to escape from the smugglers, who were attempting to extort money. The incident happened in Taiz governorate on 13 January. The bodies were left on the outskirts of Al-Dhubai village. These deaths are tragic and underline the serious risks African refugees, potential asylum seekers and migrants face in crossing the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea. It is our hope that the Yemeni authorities will find the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

Instability and the reduced police presence in Yemen are giving human traffickers and smugglers more room to operate. It is also frequently preventing patrols along Yemen's shores by humanitarian teams as they try to reach new arrivals before the smugglers. Reports of abductions of migrants or refugees upon arrival in Yemen persist - mostly for ransom or extortion. While the main targets seem to be Ethiopian new arrivals some Somali refugees have been also abducted.

Another worrying trend has been the prevalence of violent physical and sexual abuse of refugees and migrants at the hands of smugglers while at sea or in land. Throughout 2011 UNHCR recorded instances of rape, sexual assault and physical abuse perpetrated against refugees and migrants. Together with our partners we provide medical assistance and counseling to survivors.

For further information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Zarzis, Tunisia: Rocco Nuri on mobile +216 22834431

  • In Geneva: Sybella Wilkes on mobile +41 79 557 9138

  • In Yemen: Edward Leposky on mobile: +967 71 222 4022