Mixed maritime migration to Yemen reaches record annual high

News Stories, 18 November 2011

© UNHCR/R.Nuri
Somali refugees wait on Yemen's Red Sea coast for transport to Aden.

GENEVA, November 18 (UNHCR) More than 12,500 refugees and migrants arrived in Yemen on smuggler boats last month, pushing the total for this year to a record 84,656.

The 12,545 people who crossed from the Horn of Africa in October was itself the highest monthly total since UNHCR began compiling data about the mixed migration route in January 2006. Those making the dangerous crossing cite a range of political and economic reasons.

Of this year's arrivals 23,079 are from Somalia, while nearly all the remaining 61,577 people are Ethiopians. The combined total to date well exceeds the previous annual record of 77,000 people recorded in 2009.

UNHCR's chief spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, said in Geneva on Friday that Somali refugees accounted for the majority of all arrivals in Yemen between 2006 and 2008. "But that has changed," she told journalists, adding that Ethiopian migrants have since 2009 constituted the largest group among those crossing the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. "From 2006 to 2011 their number has increased sixfold from some 11,000 in 2006 to 61,000 between January and October this year," she noted.

The sailing patterns have also shifted significantly over the years. Initially, most of the crossings occurred in the Gulf of Aden, where the journey from Somalia to Yemen takes three to four days. Since 2009 there has been increasing traffic on the Red Sea. There, the voyage from the Horn to Yemen, with boats now arriving at all times of day, lasts only a few hours. Today, three out of four boats reaching Yemen come ashore on its Red Sea coast.

Refugees from Somalia cite conflict, insecurity, drought and the resulting famine as the main factors driving them to leave their country. Most arrive in Yemen unaware of the insecurity there, which makes further movement difficult and risky.

Most Ethiopians say they left home because of a lack of economic and livelihood opportunities, but some have indicated they fled in fear of persecution or insecurity in their regions of origin.

As well as affecting refugees and migrants, the insecurity and fighting in many parts of Yemen also poses additional challenges and risks for UNHCR staff and people working for its implementing partners.

"Our partners have been forced to reduce the number of convoys and take longer routes transporting refugees from the reception and transit centres along the Gulf coast to Kharaz refugee camp, some 130 kilometres west of Aden," Fleming said.

"Together with our partners we are informing all those in the reception and transit centres about the situation in Yemen. But many decide not to wait for transport and set off on foot towards Yemeni towns and cities often through conflict-affected areas," she added.

The UN refugee agency is also concerned about an increasing trend of abductions, extortions, kidnappings and sexual assaults targeting refugees, and particularly Ethiopian migrants.

While Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees upon arrival in Yemen, many Ethiopians are taken by smugglers to other Gulf states or held for ransom before they can have any contact with the authorities or UNHCR. The perpetrators are mainly smuggling gangs profiting from a reduced police presence in parts of Yemen, particularly along the Red Sea coast. UNHCR continues to provide medical and legal assistance as well as counselling to victims.

Yemen currently hosts more than 200,000 Somali refugees. In addition, an estimated 445,000 Yemeni civilians are displaced throughout the country. UNHCR and its partners continue to provide essential protection and assistance.




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.

International Migration

The link between movements of refugees and broader migration attracts growing attention.

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.

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.


Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

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