LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 1,200 people fleeing conflict in Yemen have reached the Horn of Africa by boat in the past two weeks, using a route taken in the past by African refugees headed in the opposite direction, the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Tuesday.
Despite fuel shortages and the high fees charged by smugglers, hundreds of Yemenis and Somalis and a small number of Ethiopians and Djiboutians have arrived in Somalia and Djibouti after an “extremely dangerous” 24-hour journey across the Gulf of Aden, the UNHCR said.
“The difficult situation in Yemen is pushing people to make the dangerous journey across the Gulf of Aden in extremely difficult conditions,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview from Geneva.
“People end up in open waters where there are no search and rescue operations ... they are fleeing ill-prepared and the journey is very risky.”
The United Nations says the conflict in Yemen has killed 600 people, wounded 2,200 and displaced 100,000 since Houthi rebels allied with Iran seized the capital Sanaa in September.
The rebels now control most of Yemen and their advance toward the southern port of Aden triggered air strikes by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia to try to drive them back.
“This extremely dangerous journey only shows what desperate measures people resort to in order to move their families to relative safety,” Edwards said.
An Ethiopian woman, accepted as a refugee in Yemen in 2002, said she and her three children had left without delays because smugglers prioritized women and children, but her husband was still waiting in Aden for a place on a boat, Edwards added.
Last year 246 people are known to have died while crossing the Gulf to Yemen and Edwards said there were still a few people taking the journey to Yemen unaware of the situation there.
“Until last week we had people still coming across the Gulf unaware of what’s going on in Yemen, but the numbers are now coming down and we see an increase in traffic in the opposite direction toward Somalia and Djibouti,” he said.
The UNHCR has set up a temporary transit center near Obock in Djibouti to help 345 refugees who arrived there and is planning to open a refugee camp at Markazi.
In Somalia, where 915 refugees have landed, the UNHCR is refurbishing two buildings to serve as reception and transit centers for Yemenis and Somalis who may want to return home.
Edwards said the agency was preparing for a “worst case scenario” of 130,000 refugees arriving in the Horn of Africa in the next six months.
Deteriorating security, fuel shortages and the failure of communication networks in Yemen are making it very difficult for the 115 UNHCR staff there to help 250,000 foreign refugees and 330,000 Yemenis displaced by previous violence, he said.
Many refugees in towns are becoming increasingly vulnerable as fighting intensifies, and some people in the northwestern cities of Sanaa and Saada cannot flee because they have no money, Edwards said.
On Tuesday Iran’s foreign minister laid out a four-point Yemen peace plan including dialogue and humanitarian aid, and renewed his call for an end to Saudi-led air strikes against the Houthi rebel force.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council later imposed an arms embargo on the Houthi rebels and demanded they stop fighting and withdraw from areas they have seized, including Sanaa.
Reporting By Magdalena Mis; Editing by Tim Pearce