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Record Number of East Africans Flee to Yemen

A Yemeni NGO worker distributes water on Somali asylum seekers upon their arrival on the beach of Hasn Beleid village, 230 kms east of the Red Sea port of Aden, (File October 15, 2008).

The United Nations refugee agency reports nearly twice as many Africans crossed the Gulf of Aden or Red Sea to Yemen in 2011 than in the previous year. Despite growing instability in Yemen, the UNHCR says a record 103,000 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants from the Horn of Africa made the perilous journey last year.

The U.N. refugee agency reports at least 130 people are known to have drowned during the crossing last year. UNHCR spokesman, Adrian Edwards, says most of those who manage to reach Yemen’s shores arrive in desperate condition. He says they are dehydrated, malnourished and often are in shock.

“Those crossing the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden face extreme risks and challenges, pretty much at every stage of the journey -- in their countries of origin, during transit, and on and after arrival in Yemen. The risks include problems of physical and sexual violence, as well as trafficking,” Edwards stated.

Once they arrive in Yemen, Edwards says the migrants face new difficulties. These include lack of access to basic services, such as shelter, water, food and emergency health care. In addition, he says limits are put on their freedom of movement and they have few opportunities for employment.

The latest data shows a significant increase in the number of Ethiopians arriving in Yemen. They now account for three out of every four arrivals. Until 2008, Somali refugees fleeing violence and human rights abuse made up the majority of those arriving in Yemen. This trend started to change in 2009.

Somalis are automatically recognized as refugees on arrival in Yemen. This gives them access to documentation and relatively unhindered movement. On the other hand, UNHCR spokesman Edwards notes, Ethiopians are generally considered economic migrants. This makes their situation in Yemen far more precarious.

“We are particularly alarmed by an incident earlier this week in which three Ethiopians were killed by smugglers operating along Yemen’s Red Sea coast. According to the reports we have had, they were shot while trying to escape the smugglers, who were trying to extort money," Edwards explained. "Instability in Yemen and the reduced police presence are giving human traffickers and smugglers more room to operate. It is also frequently preventing patrols along Yemen’s shores by humanitarian teams trying to reach new arrivals before the smugglers do.”

Edwards says reports of abductions of migrants upon arrival in Yemen for ransom or extortion persist. He says the main targets seem to be Ethiopian new arrivals. But, he notes some Somali refugees also have been abducted.