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Nine drown in latest smuggling mishap off Yemen coast

News Stories, 26 March 2009

© Paul Hansen/Dagens Nyheter
Somalis wait to be picked up after reaching Yemen. People continue to die making the crossing from the Horn of Africa.

ADEN, Yemen, March 26 (UNHCR) Nine people drowned earlier this week off the coast of Yemen after smugglers forced Ethiopian and Somali passengers to disembark in deep water because they feared arrest.

The latest tragedy in the Gulf of Aden came just two days after at least seven people died in Aden on Saturday evening when their vessel capsized after being towed to the harbour by a French warship.

In Monday's incident, smugglers carrying 92 Ethiopians and Somalis approached the south-central Yemen coast near the town of Ahwar, some 250 kilometres east of Aden.

They offloaded 36 passengers when they were about 100 metres offshore, but then returned to deeper water because they were worried about being arrested by Yemeni police. The smugglers then forced the remaining 56 passengers to jump into the sea, before heading back towards Somalia.

Nine bodies were recovered and buried in a local cemetery by a local aid group. The 83 survivors were transported to Ahwar Reception Centre, where the Médecins Sans Frontières aid agency provided them with water, high nutrition biscuits and medical assistance.

Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's representative in Yemen, said the loss of life was tragic, while adding: "We are very concerned that this trend may continue in the future."

A total of 268 boats and 14,486 people are known to have made the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing from the Horn of Africa to the Yemen coast since the beginning of this year. To date, 65 people are reported dead and 36 missing at sea. Those who make the crossing are fleeing a desperate situation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, a region scarred by civil war, political instability, famine and poverty.

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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Out at sea, they are at the whim of smugglers. Some passengers get beaten, stabbed, killed and thrown overboard. Others drown before reaching the beaches of Yemen, which have become the burial ground for hundreds of innocent people who die en route.

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