The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Yemen received 77,802 new arrivals from the Horn of Africa in 2009, a 55 percent increase over 2008 and for the first time Somalis were not the majority nationality, the agency's external relations officer Rocco Nuri told IRIN in Sanaa on 16 January.
The biggest change over 2008, he said, was that the number of Ethiopians making the perilous boat journey across the Gulf of Aden more than doubled to 44,814, while 32,988 Somalis reached Yemen’s shores.
"There are various push factors behind the increasing number of Ethiopians, such as conflict, famine, drought and lack of job opportunities," Nuri said.
He added that the global financial crisis and subsequent rise in commodity prices “also played a role in pushing more people to leave their countries in search of better opportunities”.
Over 700,000 immigrants
There are more than 700,000 African immigrants in Yemen, the majority of whom are Somalis, deputy foreign minister Ali Muthan told a symposium in Sanaa on 12 January at the launch of a new initiative entitled ‘Supporting Yemeni Government and Civil Society to Meet Migration Challenges’.
He said that "out of the total number of African immigrants in Yemen, only 200,000 have refugee status”.
"The government has made tireless efforts to reduce the influx of Africans into its territory through contributing to enhancing stability and security in Somaliland," Muthan said.
According to UNHCR, all Somalis arriving in Yemen are granted prima facie refugee status while non-Somalis wanting to claim asylum are required to apply at a UNHCR office.
For those escaping war, violence and persecution, the hazardous journey to East African ports and then across the Gulf of Aden in the hands of ruthless people smugglers only adds to their suffering, according to UNHCR officials.
"They walk sometimes for days or travel in risky conditions prior to reaching one of the main departure points in Somalia and Djibouti. Once a deal with smugglers is made, they are put on over-packed, rickety boats and are likely to be subjected to psychological and physical violence at the hands of smugglers, as well as being left with no water and food for days under a blistering sun," Nuri told IRIN.
He added that smugglers often beat passengers to prevent them from moving and putting their small boats at risk of capsizing. Sometimes people were forced to jump overboard. "When a boat capsizes, many drown and the likelihood of finding the missing alive is very low," he said.
According to UNHCR, at least 309 people drowned or did not survive the trip in 2009. However, this was less than half the 590 that died in 2008.
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