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

Briefing Notes, 24 March 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 March 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

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 capisized 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 200 kms from Aden and 86 kms off the coast of Yemen. Hence the smugglers' boat was inside the Yemeni Maritime Rescue Coordination Center's area and therefore under the area of responsibility of Yemen. The crew of the French frigate, Floreal, which is part of the European Union's Atalanta Operation in the Gulf of Aden, stopped the leak and then towed the boat, which was carrying 104 people, to Aden. As it docked at a pier, 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. 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. Our 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.

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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

Gulf of Aden People-Smuggling: International Help Needed

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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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

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