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Yemen Detains Horn of Africa Refugees


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 detained.

“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.

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