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, with over 63,800 people having made this perilous journey in the first seven months of 2012, the United Nations reported today.
This marks a 30 per cent increase over the number of arrivals during the same period last year, which was 48,700, according to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Once data for August is compiled, we expect to see another spike in arrivals in Yemen,” a UNHCR spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, told a news conference in Geneva.
She said 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. Of particular note is a 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,” the spokesperson said.
Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees in all neighbouring countries, including Yemen, owing to conflict and human rights violations in their home country, according to UNHCR. 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, with most citing a lack of prospects and a difficult economic situation back in their homeland, said Ms. Fleming.
“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,” she added.
Mr. Fleming also noted “disturbing” trends in the way that boat crossings are being carried out. In addition to more 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.