Ethiopians and Eritreans
who have recently risked their lives crossing the Gulf of Aden by boat to seek
refuge in Yemen are being denied asylum status. The UN refugee agency says it is looking into reports that 87
asylum seekers have been detained over the past two weeks by the San’aa
government, with some, including six women, being sent to a so-called
government reception center. UN High
Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Tim Irwin says that the numbers of desperate Horn of Africa
refugees making the perilous Red Sea crossing seem to be growing.
“We estimate that there have been in excess of
37-thousand people who have arrived in Yemen, setting off from Somalia in
2008. The group comprises mostly
Somalis fleeing the ongoing violence in that country, and also there are a
smaller number of Ethiopians and Eritreans.
In 2007, a total of about 23-thousand people arrived in Yemen, so we’re
seeing that already at this stage in the year, an increase over the number of
people that made that journey last year,” he said.
Irwin says that amid the chaos, violence, and
institutional civil strife being experienced in Somalia, Yemen has been more
inclined to grant asylum status to thousands of distressed sea travelers from
that country. However, the UNHCR
spokesman says the agency is seeking clarification about Yemen’s refugee policy
in light of the reports that the Ethiopian and Eritrean arrivals are being
“The UN refugee agency does not have access to
them, which as far as we’re concerned is a cause of concern, particularly given
the generosity which the authorities in Yemen have displayed up until this
point,” he noted.
Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee
Convention and its 1967 Protocol spelling out the principles for assigning
refugee status. The UNHCR acknowledges
Yemen’s right to investigate refugees’ asylum claims and determine if the
exiles are qualified to receive the benefits of safe-haven. The agency says it is seeking clarification
from San’aa on the way the Ethiopian and Eritrean arrivals are being treated
and urges Yemen’s government to ensure that those seeking protection will
continue to be able to apply for asylum.
Irwin says that so far, there has been no finding of favoritism of
arrivals from one country over another.
“I’m not sure that they’re showing deference to
one group or another. These are reports
which apply to one group of Ethiopians.
It’s something which we are looking into, and we will want to gain
access to this group and obviously have discussions with the authorities in
Yemen if these reports turn out to be true.
But I think up until this point, both people traveling from Somalia and
from Ethiopia have been allowed to stay, haven’t been forced back, so they’ve
certainly been living up to their international obligations,” said Irwin.
The UN refugee agency notes that
October is the peak season for Horn of Africa asylum-seekers to make the
treacherous Gulf of Aden crossing out of Africa to win what they see as greater
economic and political freedoms and escape what many find are frequent threats
to their physical security. Irwin says
many lives have been lost in transit, but the flight continues because “the
incentive is the potential to live without the daily threat of violence and
death and persecution, particularly among the Somali refugees,” who he
says are fleeing a desperate situation
within their own homeland.