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UNHCR: Fewer Somalis Fleeing to Yemen

The United Nations refugee agency reports the number of people from the Horn of Africa fleeing across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen has slowed dramatically. The UNHCR says nearly half as many people have made the perilous journey during the first quarter of the year compared with the same period in 2009.

The UN refugee agency estimates some 9,400 people reached the shores of Yemen since the beginning of the year in contrast to nearly 17,000 between January and March 2009.

The UNHCR says the largest drop was in the number of new Somali arrivals. So far this year, some 3,200 Somali refugees arrived in Yemen. UNHCR Spokeswoman, Melissa Fleming says this is about one third the number that arrived during the first quarter of 2009.

"The drop in the number of Somali arrivals, however, is not driven, unfortunately, by an improvement of conditions inside Somalia," she said. "Many civilians are still daily forced to flee their homes. In fact, this year has to represent the worst and deadliest fighting in Somalia since early 2009," she added.

In the first three months of the year, an estimated 169,000 people were forced to flee their homes in south central Somalia, particularly from the capital Mogadishu. This is some of the highest recorded displacement rates since January 2009.

UNHCR spokeswoman Fleming says in 2010 more than 20,000 Somali refugees have fled to Kenya and Ethiopia. She says most of the internally displaced headed for makeshift camps in Afgooye, about 30 kilometers west of Mogadishu.

But, she says traffic across the Gulf of Aden has been drying up.

"The new Somali refugees reaching Yemen claim that those fleeing the fighting face increasing difficulties in reaching the port town of Bossaso in northern Somalia, where they wait for their chance to board smugglers' boats sailing for Yemen," said Fleming. "They cite increased insecurity as the main reason deterring their movements towards the north. In addition, they say more and more people simply have no means to pay for the trip to Puntland," she said.

In the past, Somali refugees have made up more than half of all of the new arrivals by sea to Yemen. The Yemeni government automatically recognized them as refugees because of their huge numbers. The country presently hosts more than 170,000 Somali refugees.

The UNHCR reports 290 people drowned last year and 220 have gone missing making the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden in smugglers' boats. It says so far this year no one has died making the crossing.