Almost 64,000 risk the high seas to Yemen in first seven months

News Stories, 28 August 2012

© SHS/A.S.Hussein
Exhausted new arrivals recover on a beach after crossing the ocean to southern Yemen.

NAIROBI, Kenya, August 28 (UNHCR) The flow of refugees and migrants from the Horn of Africa across the perilous high seas to Yemen hit a record total of more than 63,800 in the first seven months of the year.

The January to July figure was up 30 per cent on the 48,700 recorded in the same period for 2011, which was itself a record year for crossings. Last year, more than 103,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea on smugglers' boats, the highest total since 2006 when UNHCR started collecting data on this route.

Once data for August is compiled, another spike in arrivals in Yemen is expected. Migrants who go to Yemen in the hope of reaching the Gulf states, usually try to depart during the fasting month of Ramadan because they think patrols on the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia are more lax during this time.

Meanwhile, the figures for this year show a significant change in the composition of those making the crossing, with more Ethiopians risking the trip with help from smugglers operating along the shores of Somalia and Djibouti. More than 51,000 have crossed this year.

In previous years, Somali refugees have constituted between a quarter and a third of all arrivals to Yemen, but from January to July this year only one-in-six of those arriving were Somali nationals, who are automatically recognized as refugees in neighbouring countries due to the turmoil in their homeland.

A UNHCR spokesperson said the refugee agency's "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."

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 risk carrying cash]," the spokesperson said.

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

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Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

An alarming number of people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Over a three-week period in late 2005, at least 150 people perished while making the journey. These deaths are frequently the result of overcrowded boats capsizing or breaking down and going adrift without food or water. Those who survive the voyage to Yemen often give brutal accounts of smugglers beating passengers or forcing them overboard while still far off shore – in some instances with their hands and feet bound.

In response, UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate Ethiopian and Somali refugees and migrants falling prey to ruthless smugglers in a bid to reach Yemen and beyond. The refugee agency has also been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

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The UN refugee agency is increasingly alarmed over the continuing violence in Iraq and distressed about the lack of an international humanitarian response to deal with the massive numbers of people being displaced. After an assessment mission in November last year, UNHCR officials warned that the agency was facing an even larger humanitarian crisis than it had prepared for in 2002-03. But UNHCR and other organisations are sorely lacking in funds to cope with the growing numbers of displaced.

In an effort to fill the massive gap in funding, UNHCR in January 2007 launched a US$60 million appeal to cover its protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within strife torn Iraq.

The longer the Iraq conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

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