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Yemen arrivals increase as Horn of Africa mixed migration hits all-time highs

Briefing Notes, 28 August 2012

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Melissa Fleming to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 28 August 2012, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The flow of refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea towards Yemen continues to exceed previous records. In the first seven of 2012, more than 63,800 people made this perilous journey compared to 48,700 during the same period last year a 30 per cent increase. 2011 was also a record year with more than 103,000 arrivals by sea to Yemen, the highest total since 2006 when UNHCR started collecting data on this route.

Noteworthy is a significant change in the composition of this population, with more Ethiopians making the crossing using the services of smugglers operating along the shores of Somalia and Djibouti. Our primary concern is for those fleeing conflict and persecution and who are forced to resort to any available means to reach safety in neighbouring countries in this case, meaning taking boats operated by smugglers. Due to conflict and human rights violations in their home country Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees in all neighbouring countries including Yemen.

In previous years, Somali refugees have constituted between a quarter and a third of all arrivals to Yemen. From January to July this year only one-in-six of those arriving in Yemen were Somali nationals. While the number of Somalis making the crossing remains relatively stable, the number of Ethiopians continues to rise (more than 51,000 this year alone).

Some of the Ethiopians who reach Yemen decide to seek asylum. Most cite a lack of prospects and a difficult economic situation. To avoid detention and deportation, they attempt to evade contact with the Yemeni authorities. Reports of serious abuses of Ethiopians at the hands of smugglers have been increasing.

We are also seeing disturbing trends in the way that boat crossings are being done. In addition to growth in the number of daily boat departures to Yemen from Djibouti, the smuggling process has now become so organized that those deciding to make this dangerous journey are using established money transfer systems to pay smugglers (rather than carrying cash for fear of being robbed by bandits en route to their departure points).

The vast majority are crossing the Red Sea from Obock, Djibouti, with the remainder crossing the Arabian Sea from Somaliland and Puntland.

Once data for August is compiled, we expect to see another spike in arrivals in Yemen. Migrants who go to Yemen in hopes of working in the Gulf States usually try to depart during Ramadan because they think patrols on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia are more lax during this time. They also believe that if they get to their intended destination during Ramadan, they may benefit from zakat or other charitable donations in the form of money, food and the chance to perform odd jobs.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Yemen, Edward Leposky on mobile +967 71 222 4022
  • In Nairobi (UNHCR regional hub): Kitty Mckinsey on mobile +254 735 337 608
  • In Geneva, Andrej Mahecic on mobile: +41 79 200 76 17
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