Perils of journey to Yemen no deterrent for thousands fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa

News Stories, 23 December 2010

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
Exhausted survivors of a Gulf of Aden crossing wait for help on a beach in Yemen. In the first 10 months of 2010, 43,000 people made the journey from the Horn of Africa.

BAB EL-MANDAB, Yemen, December 23 (UNHCR) The fishing village of Bab El-Mandab, some 190 km west of Aden, in southern Yemen is the closest point in the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. Here, in a small office by a petrol station, staff of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a UNHCR partner organization, meticulously record the number of boats carrying migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa which land in this country almost every day.

From January to October this year, some 43,000 people -13,000 Somalis and nearly 30,000 Ethiopians made the dangerous trip across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden in flimsy boats. An unknown number perished in the attempt. Far from the eyes of the world, a human tragedy of huge proportions has been unfolding for years.

Relying on an extensive network of contacts in the police, army, coast guard and among local villagers, DRC staff travel up and down the coast in search of recently-arrived migrants from Africa. They work closely with UNHCR and the Yemeni Red Crescent, which provides first aid, water and high-energy biscuits to the new arrivals.

Earlier this year, in the Al Kharaz refugee camp some 40 km west of Bab El-Mandab, UNHCR staff interviewed an Ethiopian man who had arrived in Yemen the day before. He looked haggard and morose. "I took a boat from Obock in Djibouti," he said through an interpreter. "To get there, I had to walk through the desert for two days from the Ethiopian border. I was kept by people smugglers in an isolated place near Obock with hundreds of others; men, women and children."

There was no food or drinking water, he explained. The smugglers sold bottled drinking water at extortionate prices. Those who couldn't pay had to drink water from some nearby wells. The water from the wells was salty and contaminated. "Those who drank it got sick and many died," he said. "Every day, while I was there, four or five people died of hunger or diarrhoea."

Since June, at least 40 Ethiopian men have died after arriving in Yemen from Djibouti. Their corpses have been discovered by local villagers or authorities near Bab El-Mandab and brought to the attention of UNHCR and its partners. A doctor at the medical clinic in Al Kharaz said that in three days in August they had admitted 26 Ethiopians suffering from severe gastroenteritis.

"Yemen allows Somali refugees fleeing armed conflict, gross human rights violations or persecution to enter its territory," said UNHCR Assistant Representative for Protection in Yemen, Ann Maymann. "This constitutes a lesson in what refugee protection is all about and many states could draw inspiration from Yemen. At the same time, the challenges are huge and more attention should be paid to the humanitarian situation unfolding here."

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world and faces many problems of its own, including internal conflicts. Some Somalis and most Ethiopians, don't stay, preferring to try and enter Saudi Arabia where they hope to find work as labourers, builders or housemaids. "If you have money, the smugglers take you by car to Saudi Arabia after you land in Yemen," an Ethiopian migrant explained. "If you don't, you have to walk all the way to the border."

On the way, some of the migrants and refugees fall prey to people traffickers, who sell them into sexual slavery and forced servitude in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.

On September 25 a court in Aden sentenced two men and a woman to 10 years imprisonment for trafficking a young Somali girl to Saudi Arabia. The girl was reunited with her mother and both have now left Yemen for a new life in Europe. Most victims of trafficking, however, are not so fortunate: it is estimated that some 12.3 million people around the world have been victims to human traffickers. The buying and selling of human beings for exploitation is tied with arms dealing and is the second largest criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking, and the fastest growing, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

By William Spindler in Yemen




UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Bonga camp is located in the troubled Gambella region of western Ethiopia. But it remains untouched by the ethnic conflicts that have torn nearby Gambella town and Fugnido camp in the last year.

For Bonga's 17,000 Sudanese refugees, life goes on despite rumblings in the region. Refugee children continue with school and play while their parents make ends meet by supplementing UNHCR assistance with self-reliance projects.

Cultural life is not forgotten, with tribal ceremonies by the Uduk majority. Other ethnic communities – Shuluks, Nubas and Equatorians – are welcome too, judging by how well hundreds of newcomers have settled in after their transfer from Fugnido camp in late 2002.

Bonga Camp, Ethiopia

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden


In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.


Ethiopia: Far From Home Play video

Ethiopia: Far From Home

Nyabuka Lam arrived in Pagak, Ethiopia in September after escaping armed men who shot her three children and husband back in her home country, South Sudan. After walking for 15 days to reach the safety of Pagak, she is now finally on a path to recovery.
Canada: Light Years Ahead
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Canada: Light Years Ahead

With help from the Government of Canada, lives of refugees in Chad and Ethiopia have been transformed through the Light Years Ahead project.
Ethiopia: South Sudanese Refugee InfluxPlay video

Ethiopia: South Sudanese Refugee Influx

Despite a ceasefire agreement signed in early May, fighting continues between government and opposition forces in South Sudan. The renewed conflict has forced thousands of refugees to seek shelter in Ethiopia.