At least 26 people dead in Gulf of Aden smuggling incident

News Stories, 10 September 2008

© UNHCR/A.Fazzina
The death of at least 26 people in one incident in the Gulf of Aden this week highlights the dangers of crossing from the Horn of Africa to Yemen on smugglers' boats. But this does not deter people, who continue to line up for boats on the Somali coast.

AHWAR, Yemen, September 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency reported on Wednesday that at least 26 people lost their lives after smugglers transporting them across the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa forced them overboard off the coast of Yemen. Several other people are missing.

A UNHCR press release cited survivors as saying that a boat carrying about 120 people stopped offshore in deep water on Tuesday and all passengers were forced overboard at gunpoint.

"They said those who refused were pushed and beaten. Some were killed. Survivors said they had earlier been assured by the smugglers that a smaller vessel would take them ashore, but none arrived," the release said.

At least 74 survivors made it to the beach and were taken to UNHCR's reception centre at Ahwar. Authorities said Wednesday morning that 26 bodies had so far been recovered and 20 people were still missing.

The latest tragedy coincides with an upsurge in people smuggling across the Gulf of Aden from strife-torn Somalia. So far this year, at least 25,859 people have arrived in Yemen after making the perilous voyage aboard smugglers' boats. More than 200 have died and at least 225 remain missing. At the same time last year, there were 9,153 arrivals, 267 dead and 118 missing.

Smuggling normally subsides between May and September because of stormy weather in the Gulf of Aden. With the early onset of calmer weather in August, smuggling resumed last month when 59 boats brought more than 1,700 desperate people to Yemen nearly triple the number of arrivals for the same month last year when 633 people landed in 10 boats.

In late August, 12 people died from one boat, eight of them after jumping into the sea when a gunbattle erupted between the Yemeni military and smugglers near the coast.

Numerous smugglers' boats were reported off the Yemen coast again on Wednesday, the statement said, adding: "UNHCR believes several factors are responsible for the recent increase in arrivals, including continuing strife and displacement in Somalia and the opening of new smuggling routes across the Gulf of Aden."

Smugglers are also believed to be attempting to take advantage of a perceived decline in coastal surveillance during Ramadan, the Islamic holy fasting month which began in early September.

UNHCR and other international agencies have been jointly calling for global action to better address this deadly problem. Over the past year, the refugee agency has substantially stepped up its work in Yemen.

Its US$18.9 million programme in Yemen currently a little more than half funded is providing additional staff, improved humanitarian assistance, additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp, and training programmes for Yemeni coast guards and other officials.

The agency has also increased its presence along the remote Yemeni coast with the opening of its second reception centre at Ahwar. The other is at Mayfa'a.

In May, a regional conference was co-convened by UNHCR 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 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. Support from the international community, however, remains an absolute necessity.

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Rescue at Sea

A guide to principles and practice as applied to migrants and refugees.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Every year thousands of people in the Horn of Africa - mainly Somalis and Ethiopians - leave their homes out of fear or pure despair, in search of safety or a better life. They make their way over dangerous Somali roads to Bossaso in the northern semi-autonomous region of Puntland.

In this lawless area, smuggler networks have free reign and innocent and desperate civilians pay up to US$150 to make the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden.

Some stay weeks on end in safe houses or temporary homes in Bossaso before they can depart. A sudden call and a departure in the middle of the night, crammed in small unstable boats. At sea, anything can happen to them - they are at the whim of smugglers. Some people get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before arriving on the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds who many of those who died en route.

Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Somalia/Ethiopia

In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

Somalia/Ethiopia

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

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