The UN refugee agency is preparing to receive as many as 130,000 refugees who could flee by boat to Africa to escape the conflict in Yemen, even as it works to help hundreds of thousands of other refugees and Yemenis under threat inside the country.
"With 14 out of Yemen's 22 governorates affected by air strikes or armed conflict, UNHCR yesterday issued a position paper to governments calling on all countries to allow civilians fleeing Yemen access to their territories," said Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Edwards told a news briefing that the historical flow of refugees from the Horn of Africa to Yemen – which has contributed almost all of the 250,000 refugees registered in Yemen – was now reversing. In the past 10 days, some 900 people have crossed the Gulf Aden to Djibouti, Somalia's Puntland and Somaliland.
"The refugees tell us many more people are trying to leave Yemen but are being prevented from doing so by fuel shortages and high fees charged by boat operators," Edwards said. "Ports are said to be closed and boats not allowed to depart."
UNHCR is making contingency plans to receive up 30,000 refugees over the next six months in Djibouti, which already hosts nearly 15,000 refugees. In Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia, UNHCR and its partners have started preparations to receive up to 100,000 people. Those escaping Yemen include both refugees who had originally fled from Africa to Yemen and Yemenis fleeing their own country.
"UNHCR is extremely concerned about the dangers for anyone trying to flee across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, where there are no search and rescue operations," Edwards said. "Last year, 246 lives were reported lost in sea crossings to Yemen."
Meanwhile, inside Yemen UNHCR operations are continuing where possible to assist the 250,000 refugees, 330,000 Yemenis displaced by previous violence, and the thousands more affected by violence in the last two weeks. The refugees are mainly Somalis, with some Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iraqis and Syrians.
The UN refugee agency called on all countries to suspend the forced return of people to Yemen.
Edwards said in Al Kharaz refugee camp in the south of Yemen, where humanitarian services continue for 18,000 Somali refugees already there, shelter and other aid is being provided to additional people who are fleeing fighting in urban areas.
"In urban areas many refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable as fighting intensifies," Edwards said. He said people had lost their livelihoods, could not access services and in one incident known to the refugee agency six refugee families in Sana'a had seen their homes destroyed in air strikes.
"Many of the internally displaced are staying in schools and hospitals," Edwards said. "Others are with relatives or host families. Blankets, mattresses and other relief items are urgently needed. UNHCR has stocks in the south of Yemen for 30,000 people, although delivery to affected people is being hampered by blocked roads and poor security."
Ironically, even as refugees flee Yemen for Africa, UNHCR said hundreds of asylum seekers -- either unaware of the situation or already in the hands of people smugglers -- continued to arrive on the shores of Yemen. Edwards appealed for ships in the Gulf of Aden to come to the rescue of any boats carrying refugees – to or from Yemen -- that were in distress.