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UNHCR alarmed at horrific conditions facing newly-arrived refugees and migrants in Yemen

Briefing notes

UNHCR alarmed at horrific conditions facing newly-arrived refugees and migrants in Yemen

17 April 2018
Yemen. Somali refugee
A Somali refugee stopped and looked at the map of Yemen in the fall of 2010.

UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is extremely concerned by a further worsening of the situation for newly-arrived refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Yemen. Unabated conflict, deteriorating economic conditions and now increasing criminality are exposing people to harm and exploitation.

With prolonged conflict and insecurity threatening state institutions and weakening the rule of law, there are growing accounts of extortion, trafficking and deportation. Many are arrested, detained, abused, and then pushed out to sea or forcibly returned by the very same smugglers who brought them to Yemen.

Since February this year, UNHCR has been working on the situation of some 100 new arrivals to Yemen who have been arrested and kept in detention. Those individuals have been faced with threats of removal or deportation, as well as subject to extortion and various forms of abuse either at the hands of traffickers or during their detention.

Reports of abuse inside detention facilities are numerous with some new arrivals being subject to physical and sexual violence. Survivors have described to UNHCR being shot at, regular beatings, rapes of adults and children, humiliations including forced nudity, being forced to witness summary executions, and denial of food.

With deportations, UNHCR has received reports of people being forced by smugglers on to boats off the Yemeni shoreline. In January this year, more than 50 Somalis were reported to have drowned during one of these operations.

For those who are pushed back across the Gulf of Aden, many fall prey once again to smugglers and traffickers who lure them in to re-attempting the journey.

Others are subject to extortion even during their deportation. Last month, for example, UNHCR received reports that a group of migrants and asylum seekers was transported to a departure point on Yemen’s Bab Al Mandab Strait for imminent deportation, only for some to be detained by smugglers seeking further ransom for their release. They were made to call families back home in Ethiopia and transfer up to US$ 700 per person in order to be released.

UNHCR’s numerous interventions and advocacy at high levels on these issues have been frustrated by the complex structures of responsibility and accountability in Yemen resulting from the ongoing conflict. We are calling on all state and non-state actors effectively controlling detention facilities where new arrivals are being held to ensure those being detained are treated humanely and with dignity in accordance with refugee and human rights law.  UNHCR is also seeking unfettered access to assist those in need of international protection in proper accord with international law.

UNHCR is also advocating for return arrangements for non-refugees to be done in coordination with international agencies and ensuring the principle of voluntariness of return.

UNHCR has been supporting authorities in Yemen to receive, register and document refugees and asylum seekers and is seeking to increase support to the Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority to further improve protection sensitive reception arrangements for new arrivals. UNHCR is also appreciative of the support of the Ministry of Interior to access detention facilities to screen and assist those seeking international protection.

Despite the ongoing conflict, Yemen has historically been a country of migration and transit from the Horn of Africa to the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. Mixed migration movements include refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked persons and migrants who either intend to remain in Yemen or transit on their way to the Gulf States.

UNHCR has long been warning of the risks of crossing to war-stricken Yemen. For new arrivals seeking international protection, access to asylum systems in Yemen is extremely challenging and individuals may be unable to register their asylum applications or have their presence documented by the authorities, particularly in the north of the country.

Prevailing insecurity and war seriously restrict the ability of UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations to reach out to the population in need of humanitarian assistance.

To spread awareness among those contemplating the perilous journey to Yemen from the Horn of Africa, UNHCR launched a regional awareness campaign “Dangerous Crossings” in February of last year.


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