News / Africa

Ethiopian Asylum Seekers Suffocate in Truck in Mozambique

Ethiopian refugees rest in the shade of a desert tree near the southeastern Yemeni town of Ahwar, one day after they reached the Yemeni coast on smugglers boats, October 14, 2008 (file photo)
Ethiopian refugees rest in the shade of a desert tree near the southeastern Yemeni town of Ahwar, one day after they reached the Yemeni coast on smugglers boats, October 14, 2008 (file photo)
Lisa Schlein

The United Nations refugee agency said it has just recently learned that eight Ethiopian asylum seekers died February 2 from suffocation aboard a closed container truck in Mozambique. The UNHCR reported the men were among a group of 26 young Ethiopians trying to reach South Africa.

The UN refugee agency said the Ethiopian asylum seekers had been living in the Maratane refugee camp in northern Mozambique, from where they embarked on their ill-fated journey.  

The driver of the truck in which they were traveling reportedly only realized the eight had suffocated when he made a stop at Mocuba, after seven hours of driving from the camp.

UNHCR spokesman, Andrej Mahecic, said the truck also was loaded with oil. He said three other men in the group had to be hospitalized and later were discharged.

He said desperate people from the Horn of Africa increasingly are taking this dangerous overland route in search of safety.

"They are fleeing the situation of the violence and conflict in Somalia and in the Horn of Africa and, of course, some of them are also fleeing poverty and lack of opportunities in their countries," said Mahecic. "As far as we know, and the information on this is very sketchy, it is not easily available, many of these people have no other option but to embark on a risky journey and this is a service that is often provided by people with a financial interest in it."  

Mahecic said asylum seekers pay smugglers on average about $2,000 to be transported to safety. He said a lot of them head for South Africa, which is the most popular country of destination. South Africa received more than 222,000 asylum seekers in 2009, he said. That is about one-quarter of the global figure.

"Just to give you the idea of the size of the asylum applications in South Africa, if you combine all the 27 countries of the European Union, they do not match up to the numbers that South Africa is receiving," said Mahecic. "So, there is definitely a flow in that direction."

Mahecic noted the Maratane refugee camp is a stopping-off point for many asylum seekers whose ultimate destination is South Africa. He said the camp is becoming congested under the weight of new arrivals. He said the UNHCR is working closely with the Mozambique authorities to improve conditions in the camp.



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