The U.N. refugee agency reports the number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. At the same time, the UNHCR says the number of deaths has gone down by half. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees says that by the latter part of April, more than 15,300 people reportedly arrived in Yemen. About 360 were reported killed or missing during the hazardous voyage.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis says records show that during the same period last year more than 7,000 people had arrived in Yemen and about the same number had perished.
"Any reduction in the death toll is incredibly welcome. We do not really know whether this is a new phenomena that is going to continue or not. But, some new arrivals have mentioned receiving water and food during the crossing, which is quite new. And, the boats seem to be less crowded than in previous years," said Pagonis.
The UNHCR says the surge in arrivals early this year was largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the asylum seekers also said they were forced to leave because of crop losses due to drought.
For years, the death toll has been mounting among Somalis and Ethiopians crossing the Gulf of Aden in rickety smugglers boats. People pay smugglers up to $150 to make the treacherous journey, which usually ends up being a nightmare and often fatal.
Pagonis says survivors tell horrific tales of brutality, about passengers being beaten, stabbed, and raped. She says many people have drowned after smugglers have forced them to jump into the sea before arriving on the coast of Yemen.
"What we have been trying to point out to people are the dangers of crossing. When you have refugees who are fleeing, it is one of these tricky situations," added Pagonis. "You cannot say we do not encourage you to leave your own country because the risks are really great. People who are fleeing for their lives are going to take whatever means they can to get out of there. But, we just need to point out the risk to them that they may well lose their lives."
Pagonis says the UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. She says the agency is stepping up an information campaign to inform refugees of the dangers of traveling in smugglers' boats.
And, she says, the UNHCR is expanding its work in Yemen to provide additional shelter and assistance, as well as protection for refugees and internally displaced people.