Fifty-two Somalis die after being left adrift by smugglers for 18 days in Gulf of Aden

News Stories, 29 September 2008

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
Aid workers from a Yemeni NGO hand out food to Somalis and Ethiopians who had just been smuggled across the Gulf Aden, before transferring them to UNHCR's Mayfa'a reception centre.

SANA'A, Yemen, September 29 (UNHCR) At least 52 Somalis perished after their stricken vessel was abandoned by smugglers in the Gulf of Aden, leaving them adrift for 18 days without food or water.

UNHCR's office in Yemen reported over the weekend that 71 people survived the ordeal after their inoperable boat drifted into Yemeni coastal waters on Sept. 21 and was rescued by local coast guards in Shihra.

Survivors said the boat left Marera on the Somali coast on Sept. 3 with at least 124 passengers aboard. Several hours into the voyage, the engine stopped and knife-wielding crewmen told passengers they would travel to the Somali city of Bossaso in a smaller boat to re-charge a battery. They never returned, leaving the passengers adrift for 18 days without food or water.

Forty-eight of the Somalis, 38 men and 10 women, died while the boat drifted the Gulf of Aden. Survivors said their bodies were thrown overboard.

After 18 days adrift, the boat finally approached Yemen's Shihra coast on Sept. 21, pushed by the current and high waves. Within sight of the coastline, three of the Somalis jumped into the sea to swim toward shore and alert authorities. One failed to make it to the beach and remains missing. A Yemen Coast Guard vessel towed the stricken boat to shore, where the passengers were met by UNHCR and its local humanitarian partners who provided food and water. Ten of the survivors were immediately hospitalized, but four later died.

The survivors, aged from 2 to 40 years old, were taken to UNHCR's Mayfa'a Reception Centre. They said they left Somalia because of continuing insecurity in the war-torn nation, drought and unemployment. Each passenger paid the smugglers between $70 and $100 for the voyage.

"This tragedy is the latest in a long series of deadly incidents involving people who are so desperate, so frightened and so discouraged that they are willing to risk everything, even their lives, to escape," said UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond, in Geneva. "UNHCR and its humanitarian partners are trying to do everything they can to prevent further tragedies, but the real solution to this ongoing crisis has got to be political, not humanitarian."

There has been a recent upsurge in people smuggling across the Gulf of Aden from war-torn Somalia. So far this year, at least 31,192 people have arrived in Yemen after making the perilous voyage aboard smugglers' boats. They include 21,201 Somalis and 9,854 Ethiopians. More than 228 people have died and at least 262 remain 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 65 boats brought more than 2,500 desperate people to Yemen nearly quadruple the number of arrivals for same month last year when 633 people landed in 10 boats. Through Sept. 23, at least 106 smuggling boats have brought 6,103 people to Yemen.

UNHCR believes a combination of factors is 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.

Humanitarian agencies have been jointly calling for global action to better address this deadly problem. Over the past year, UNHCR has substantially stepped up its work in Yemen. Its more than $17 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 and reception facilities along the Red Sea. The other is at Mayfa'a.

In May, 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 includes a significant number of refugees. Additional funding will have to be made available in countries in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia, to mitigate against such movements.

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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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

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.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

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.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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