Perils of the Red Sea boat people

A record number of people fleeing conflict, poverty and drought in the Horn of Africa have risked their lives crossing the Red Sea into Yemen this year. The total of more than 74,000 is a 50% increase on last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

“The mixed migration route through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea is presently the busiest and the deadliest one in the world,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said.

While Somalis have accounted for most of the arrivals in previous years, the number of Ethiopians reaching Yemen has doubled from last year to more than 42,000, while the number of Somalis has remained steady at around 32,000.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting the migrants' treatment – both during the perilous journey and after their arrival in Yemen. Smugglers take the migrants by boat from either the Somali port city of Bosasso or the town of Obock in Djibouti, HRWsaid in a press release:

Conditions aboard the boats are inhumane and the smugglers – especially those operating out of Bosasso – often treat their passengers with astonishing brutality, robbing, beating, and even murdering them.

Smugglers order passengers on the overcrowded boats not to move, even to stretch cramped limbs, which is impossible since the journey from Bosasso normally lasts one to three days. They routinely beat their passengers with whips and sticks. Many suffer far worse. Human Rights Watch documented cases of passengers being murdered and thrown overboard and of women being sexually assaulted and raped on board the overcrowded boats while other passengers looked on helplessly. Others suffocate, locked into cramped and airless spaces below deck as punishment or simply as a way of cramming more people on board. Hundreds of people die every year during the crossings.

For many, the worst danger lies when the boats are finally in sight of Yemen. Many smugglers, to minimise their own risk of capture, force their passengers to leap into deep water and swim, beating or even stabbing them if they try to refuse. Many, not knowing how to swim or simply too exhausted from their ordeal on the boats, drown within sight of shore. Human Rights Watch interviewed people who watched other passengers – in some cases even their own children – drown less than 200 metres from land.

According to the UNHCR, 309 people have died this year trying to reach Yemen, while the death toll last year was almost 600.
Somalis arriving in Yemen are assumed to be refugees and are almost automatically given protected status. But Ethiopians and other non-Somalis are assumed to be illegal immigrants, even if they are fleeing persecution.

"Those who are caught are generally imprisoned and put on a fast track toward deportation, with no meaningful opportunity to claim asylum," HRW says.

"The Ethiopian asylum seekers who ... reach a UNHCR office without being arrested are able to apply for refugee status." It continues:

If UNHCR recognises them as refugees the government will not arrest and deport them. But they still face discriminatory government policies that relegate them to a kind of second-tier refugee status.

The Yemeni government will not issue official identification documents to non-Somali refugees, preventing them from claiming rights and services to which they should be entitled. Ethiopian refugees also suffer harassment and violence, fuelled in part by the perception that the government will not protect them. In many cases, Yemeni police officers have refused to investigate or arrest Yemenis responsible for serious crimes against Ethiopian refugees.

Last week UNHCR said it has been "expressing its serious concern" to the Yemeni authorities over the continued detention and deportation of Ethiopians who are not allowed to contact the refugee agency.

But Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, put it more bluntly: "UNHCR's strategy of quiet diplomacy with the Yemeni government simply isn't working," she said. "The agency needs to start treating the plight of Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees in Yemen as a priority and not a secondary concern."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2009.