UN refugee agency warns over perilous Horn of Africa sea crossings

Migrants form queues to be counted by their smuggler prior to being transported by boat from Obock, northern Djibouti, to Yemen. Photo: Kristy Siegfried/IRIN

19 January 2016 – Despite the ongoing conflict in Yemen, thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis are continuing to make a perilous sea crossing, which has already claimed at least three dozen lives this year, the UN refugee agency warned today.

Latest data on sea arrivals shows that 92,446 people arrived in Yemen by boat in 2015, one of the highest annual totals recorded over the past decade. A full two thirds arrived since March 2015 when the conflict began.

With 95 deaths reported, 2015 is the second deadliest year recorded to date. In view of this, and the loss of 36 lives in an incident on 8 January this year, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) today reiterated its warning to people contemplating the crossing over the dangers of this journey.

“The overall figures are disturbing,” UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters at a news briefing in Geneva.

“People continue to arrive despite unprecedented escalated internal conflict in Yemen and tragically, more people continue to lose their lives trying to cross the sea in overcrowded, unseaworthy boats,” he added.

UNHCR began systematic recording of arrivals in Yemen in 2006. To date, only 2011 and 2012 have seen higher arrivals of Ethiopians and Somalis in Yemen than there were in 2015. Almost 90 per cent of last year's arrivals were from Ethiopia.

UNHCR in Somalia and its partners have reportedly been working with the international community and Somali authorities to improve political, security and socio-economic conditions in Somalia. They have also been actively pursuing durable solutions for refugees, returnees and people who are internally displaced.

According to the agency, these efforts aim at providing an alternative to Somalis to undertaking perilous sea journeys to Yemen. The number of Somalis who made the journey to Yemen last year compares to a high of just over 33,000 in 2008.

Meanwhile, many new arrivals are reportedly misinformed about the severity of the conflict, believe that the situation has become relatively calm in some of the southern governorates, or are following rumours of improved access into neighbouring Gulf countries.

New arrivals have been described as facing movement restrictions in Yemen, and there have been reports of some being caught in the conflict and killed. There are now fewer income opportunities and available services, and organized gangs and smugglers continue to operate along the Red Sea coast.

“UNHCR and partners in the Horn of Africa counsel would-be crossers about the inherent dangers of the journey, the realities of the situation on the ground in Yemen and the asylum and assistance options available to them,” Mr. Edwards said.

Conflict continues to rage in the country and Yemenis are bearing the brunt with the UN estimating that over 2.5 million people are now internally displaced. Despite severely restricted humanitarian access and security constraints, UNHCR reached over 280,000 internally displaced Yemenis with essential household items and shelter material in 2015.

Yemen is also host to over 266,000 refugees, of which some 250,000 are Somali. Meanwhile, over 168,000 people have fled Yemen to neighbouring countries since March.

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