More Horn of Africa immigrants despite unrest

SANAA, 13 April 2011 (IRIN) - The number of immigrants arriving in Yemen from the Horn of Africa since the beginning of 2011 has increased despite the current political turmoil, raising fears that the government may find it hard to provide for them.

Some 21,577 arrivals were recorded by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in the first quarter of 2011, compared to 9,439 during the same period in 2010, and 16,932 in 2009. This year's figures are the highest since 2008.

Yemen has, since February, been in the grip of nationwide protests against long-serving President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and more than 100 people have been killed.

"I don't know how the government can provide protection for this increasing number of illegal immigrants and refugees coming from the Horn of Africa while it is struggling to protect its own citizens," said Mohammed al-Fuqmi, rapporteur for the government-run National Committee for Refugee Affairs.

The data shows that while the number of Somalis has decreased, the number of Ethiopians has increased. The latter accounted for 75 percent of immigrant arrivals in the first three months of 2011.

Unlike the Somalis, who tend to take the perilous 35-hour voyage from the northern Somali port of Bosasso to Yemen's southern coast, most Ethiopians reach Yemen via Djibouti - a much shorter journey of up to 10 hours, according to Ahmad Akam, a Yemeni coastguard official at the port city of Mukha.

"Their sea voyages are less risky, compared to the more adventurous voyages made by those coming from Bosasso," he told IRIN said.

Why the influx?

Ame Abdu Shabo, chairman of the Oromo Refugee Community in Yemen, attributed the increasing influx of Ethiopians to conflict in the Oromo region. Some of the new arrivals, he added, had been harassed by armed Yemenis demanding money in Dabab village near the southwestern coast in Taiz Governorate.

"We found out that four Oromo women and a man [were] being held captive for more than one week by armed men in Dabab," he said. "Each one of them was asked to pay a ransom of US$300. The four complained of being tortured and beaten by their captors daily because they couldn't pay."

Jamal al-Najjar, an information assistant with UNHCR, said the agency was following up the matter with the authorities in Taiz.

Official Yemeni government estimates put the total number of African refugees and illegal immigrants in the country at more than 700,000.