Refugee exodus across perilous Gulf of Aden soars by 70 per cent, UN reports

9 January 2009
People wading out to a smuggler's boat on the coast of Somalia ahead of the Gulf of Aden crossing

Over 50,000 people fleeing war and poverty made the nearly always perilous and sometimes deadly voyage in smugglers’ boats across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia last year, a 70 per cent increase over 2007, the United Nations refugee agency reported today. At least 590 drowned, often at the hands of the smugglers, and nearly 360 others went missing.

“There were again many reports of people being beaten to death during the crossings in 2008, but most of the deaths were due to drowning after passengers were forced overboard in treacherous waters far off the Yemen coast in a bid by the smugglers to avoid detection by Yemen authorities,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva.

“The increase in arrivals reflects the desperate situation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, a region scarred by civil war, political instability, famine and poverty,” he said of the statistics, which showed arrivals in Yemen at 50,091, compared with 29,500 in 2007. By contrast the 2007 death toll was substantially higher at 1,400.

UNHCR is beefing up its response in Yemen by improving reception conditions for those who manage to reach its shores and has also carried out information campaigns in the Horn of Africa warning people of the dangers of using smugglers. The agency and its partners also have programmes aimed at improving living conditions of people with protection needs on the Africa side of the Gulf so that they do not need to risk their lives by crossing to Yemen.

Meanwhile, UNHCR called on European Union States, ahead of a Mediterranean ministers’ meeting next week, to ensure that people seeking asylum have access to territory and to fair procedures for examining their claims.

Last year, out of a total estimated figure of more than 67,000 people crossing to Europe by sea, some 38,000 arrived in Italy and Malta alone, mostly after transiting through Libya. The vast majority applied for asylum, and more than half of those claimants were found to be in need of international protection.

With few opportunities to enter the EU by regular means, thousands of people threatened by persecution and serious human rights violations in their home countries have no choice but to take the dangerous sea route. “This highlights the vital need to ensure that State agreements and measures to tighten borders do not block access to safety for those seeking protection in the EU,” Mr. Redmond said.

The interior ministers of Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Malta are to meet in Rome on 13 January to discuss the problem of irregular migrants arriving by sea, and the issue may also be discussed at an informal meeting of EU justice and home affairs ministers in Prague on 15 January.

Attention has recently focused on large numbers of people landing on the Italian island of Lampedusa.

“UNHCR appreciates the efforts made by States along the Mediterranean to rescue people in distress at sea. We also recognize that boat arrivals put significant strains on the resources of those countries,” Mr. Redmond said.

“People seeking asylum must nevertheless be allowed to disembark in a safe place, where they can receive information about their rights and have a genuine opportunity to file an asylum application which will be considered in a fair procedure. Sending refugees back to countries where they cannot enjoy effective protection could violate Member States' international obligations to refrain from refoulement (return to places where they could be at risk).”


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