French Navy helps rescue boat people, but seven die in Aden accident

News Stories, 23 March 2009

© UNHCR/R.Nuri
The boat carrying Somalis and Ethiopians reaches the pier at Steamer Point in Aden.

ADEN, Yemen, March 23 (UNHCR) The French Navy helped rescue scores of Somali and Ethiopian boat people at the weekend, but at least seven of them drowned when their vessel capsized shortly after docking in the Yemeni port of Aden. Five people are missing and presumed dead.

The tragedy occurred Saturday as passengers tried to disembark from the rickety smugglers' boat, which had just been towed to the Yemeni coast by a French frigate that on Thursday had found it adrift and taking on water in the Gulf of Aden, about 130 kilometres from Aden.

French sailors stopped the leak and then towed the boat, which was carrying 104 people, to Aden. As it docked at a pier in Aden's Steamer Point, the frightened passengers all rushed at the same time to disembark, causing the vessel to founder because of the sudden shift in balance.

French sailors and the Yemeni coastguard rescued 85 passengers and four of the smugglers, who were later arrested. Nineteen of the passengers were taken to a hospital in Aden for medical treatment, while 66 people were transferred to the compound of a local aid agency.

"We are grateful to the French Navy and the Yemeni authorities, including port officials and the coastguard, for the rescue operation," said Leila Nassif, the head of UNHCR's sub-office in Aden. "As soon as the boat overturned, we saw everyone jump in the water and no effort was spared to save lives."

© UNHCR/R.Nuri
Divers look for survivors after the boat foundered.

UNHCR staff were present when the accident happened because they had earlier been informed that a boat was being towed to Aden carrying people who hoped to cross from Somalia to Yemen. The refugee agency's local partners provided first aid, food and water to the survivors.

So far this year, a total of 260 boats and 13,250 people have made the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing from the Horn of Africa to the Yemen coast. To date, 54 people are reported dead and 36 missing at sea. Those who make the crossing are either fleeing persecution and conflict, or seeking a better life.

By Rocco Nuri in Aden, Yemen

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An alarming number of people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Over a three-week period in late 2005, at least 150 people perished while making the journey. These deaths are frequently the result of overcrowded boats capsizing or breaking down and going adrift without food or water. Those who survive the voyage to Yemen often give brutal accounts of smugglers beating passengers or forcing them overboard while still far off shore – in some instances with their hands and feet bound.

In response, UNHCR has issued an urgent appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate Ethiopian and Somali refugees and migrants falling prey to ruthless smugglers in a bid to reach Yemen and beyond. The refugee agency has also been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

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