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Horn of Africa Migrants Continue to Take Risks for a Better Life

An Ethiopian migrant shows torture wounds he received from traffickers as he waits to be repatriated at a transit center in the western Yemeni town of Haradh, on the border with Saudi Arabia, Mar. 16, 2012.
Desperation for a better life continues to be the driving force behind the increasing numbers of migrants traveling from the Horn of Africa to Yemen.

The United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, reported that so far this year, 46,000 asylum seekers, refugees and migrants made the treacherous journey across the Arabian or Red seas. The agency said they traveled in overcrowded, unsafe boats, and also in the hands of smugglers.

“Typically, migrants -- including asylum seekers and refugees -- are fleeing conflict, political instability, human rights violations, and drought. They’re essentially desperate and they’re looking for safety, protection, and yes economic opportunities too,” explained Daniel MacIsaac, UNHCR spokesperson in Geneva.

The agency said it is concerned about the increase in the number of people making the dangerous trip, and that it is working with partners to record new arrivals and offer support.

MacIsaac also pointed out that trip across the waters, which takes several days, is one where the person is desperate enough to put himself in the hands of networks of smugglers and traffickers.

“It’s a bit out of your hands, out of your control when you make that decision. There are times when you’re approaching the sea coast of Yemen, and in order to avoid detection by authorities, there are reports of smugglers forcing these migrants into the waters offshore,” he said.

The danger does not end once the migrants reach land.

“Unfortunately, there are networks of traffickers waiting on shore, and that makes it difficult to access the people,” explained MacIsaac. He said the risk of exploitation and ransom is also high once they reach Yemen.

The UNHCR spokesperson said there are now more Ethiopians crossing the waters than Somalis. The refugees are citing difficult situations at home. Previously, Somali refugees made up about 1/3 of those making the trip.

“Of the people who arrived in Yemen in the first half of 2013, about 38,000 or 84% were Ethiopian. There were about 7,500 or about 16% Somalis, and there were small numbers of other people from Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan as well,” explained MacIsaac.

He cautioned the decrease in the number of Somali refugees does not mean movement from Somalia has stopped. On a recent trip to the Horn of Africa, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees confirmed a continued outflow of refugees from Somalia.