Yemen's coast guards rescue boat people; six still missing

News Stories, 13 August 2008

© UNHCR/A.Fazzina
A group of Ethiopians arrives in Yemen at sunrise after spending two days crossing the Gulf of Aden. Many don't survive the perilous trip in rough waters on poorly-maintained smugglers' boats.

MAYFA'A, Yemen, August 13 (UNHCR) Six people are missing after a mishap in the Gulf of Aden last weekend involving a smuggler's boat operating off-season despite the rough seas. This raises concerns that the human smuggling season could be starting earlier and in higher numbers than before.

Last Saturday, UNHCR's staff in Mayfa'a reception centre in south Yemen reported that a fishing boat carrying about 175 people was stranded in deep water after it broke down while approaching the Mayfa'a Hager coast from Marera village near Bossaso on the northern tip of Somalia. Some were rescued by fishermen while another group managed to leave on a smaller boat and reach the coast through heavy storms and choppy seas. Upon arrival they alerted UNHCR's local partner, Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS).

The Yemeni Coast Guard was immediately informed and together with SHS, a field team was deployed in three boats to rescue the stranded passengers. The first attempt took place late on Saturday night, but was not successful because of the atrocious weather. A second attempt at dawn on Sunday led to the rescue of more people. Survivors reported that six passengers were still missing.

All rescued people were transferred to Mayfa'a reception centre, where they are being assisted by UNHCR and its partners, and provided with food, blankets, shelter and medical care.

The weekend incident marks the end of a brief lull over the summer, when bad weather traditionally prevents human smugglers from operating in the gulf. In the last week alone, nine boats have brought more than 458 people, mainly Somalis and Ethiopians, to the coast of Yemen.

"This is a steep increase from 2007 and the numbers will continue to rise," said Myra Sabongi, UNHCR's Protection Officer in Aden. "We are not even half way through August, but the number of arrivals is already significantly higher than for the entire month of August 2007. Similarly, this July, more than 233 people arrived to the shore, compared to 57 during the same month in 2007."

So far this year, more than 22,532 people have made the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing aboard smugglers' boats. More than 165 people have died trying to make the voyage this year and 220 are missing.

UNHCR and other international agencies have been jointly calling for global action to better address the challenges. Over the past year, the refugee agency has massively stepped up its work in Yemen and appealed for over $17 million to provide for additional staff, better assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp and training programmes for the coastguard and other officials. UNHCR has also enhanced its presence along the coast and opened an additional reception centre earlier this year.

In April, a regional conference was convened by UNHCR in cooperation with the Mixed Migration Task Force for Somalia to establish a regional mechanism and long term plan of action on refugee protection and mixed migration in the Gulf of Aden. The mixed flow of people across the Gulf of Yemen includes a significant number of refugees.

"Yemen has carried a major burden in dealing with irregular migratory movements in the region, yet has maintained an open-door policy to refugees," said Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's Representative in Yemen. "Support from the international community however remains an absolute necessity."

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New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

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This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

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