GENEVA, January 15 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency announced on Tuesday that some 107,500 African refugees and migrants made the perilous sea journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2012, the largest such influx since UNHCR began compiling these statistics in 2006. The previous record high was in 2011, when more than 103,000 people arrived in Yemen on smugglers' boats.
Some 84,000, or more than 80 per cent, of the arrivals were Ethiopian nationals, while Somali refugees
constituted the rest. Many migrants use Yemen as a transit stop en route to states in the Persian Gulf.
Despite economic and security difficulties last year, Yemen continued to receive and host a record number of people fleeing the Horn of Africa in search of safety, protection and better economic conditions. All Somali arrivals are automatically recognized as refugees by Yemeni authorities.
UNHCR conducts refugee status determination for Ethiopians and other nationalities seeking asylum in Yemen. A very low percentage of Ethiopian arrivals decide to seek asylum, either due to a lack of awareness and access to asylum mechanisms or because they do not meet the criteria to be recognized as refugees. However, for the vast majority of Ethiopian migrants protection space is nearly non-existent and they are often extremely vulnerable.
In Yemen, staff from UNHCR and its local partners conduct daily patrols along the Gulf of Aden coast to provide assistance to all new arrivals that pass through strategically positioned reception and transit centres. However, there are substantial difficulties in responding to the various protection risks that new arrivals face in transit and upon arrival in Yemen.
Boats crossing to Yemen are often overcrowded and smugglers, in order to avoid the Yemeni coastguard, sometimes force the passengers into the water, often far from the shore and in stormy weather. UNHCR estimates that at least 100 people have drowned or gone missing while trying to cross the Gulf of Aden or the Red Sea in 2012.
New arrivals are at risk of exploitation, violence and sexual abuse. The situation is particularly difficult along the Red Sea coast, where Yemeni smugglers and traffickers are often waiting to receive new arrivals. Traffickers mainly target Ethiopians looking to travel onwards to Persian Gulf states.
Conflict and instability in the north and south of the country has curbed the ability of Yemeni authorities to address trafficking. In 2012, there was a proliferation in smuggling and trafficking and a significant increase in reported cases of violence and abuse perpetrated against new arrivals. The increased presence of armed gangs of smugglers and traffickers is an additional risk to aid workers.
"The continually growing mixed migration movement from the Horn of Africa is an issue affecting the region beyond Yemen," UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards said in Geneva on Tuesday. "We welcome the decision of the authorities in [the Yemen capital] Sana'a to host a regional conference this year with UNHCR as part of wider efforts to develop a strategy to manage the flow of mixed migrants, and prevent and reduce smuggling and trafficking in the region."
Yemen is a historic transit hub for migrants and stands out in the region for its hospitality towards refugees. The country currently hosts more than 236,000 refugees, virtually all of them of Somali origin. There are also more than 300,000 internally displaced Yemeni civilians in the north due to recurring conflict since 2004.
Meanwhile, in the south, more than 100,000 internally displaced people have returned to their areas of origin in Abyan governorate as the conflict subsided and conditions improved. UNHCR has been advocating with the government and international community to ensure the sustainability of these returns.
On December 30, the UN refugee agency airlifted emergency relief items to Aden, including blankets, plastic sheets and sleeping mats for the returnees. The aid and further assistance arriving by sea will help some 30,000 vulnerable Yemeni families.