Deadly incidents mark the start of the sailing season in the Gulf of Aden

Briefing Notes, 17 September 2010

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 17 September 2010, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

This week we have received reports of a killing and drownings in the Gulf of Aden, indicating that the autumn mixed-migration sailing season has resumed.

According to information from new arrivals in Yemen on Wednesday, an Ethiopian man was beaten to death and thrown overboard by smugglers navigating a boat carrying 105 African migrants and refugees, mostly Ethiopians. The victim had been sitting below deck in stifling conditions and was beaten and locked in the engine room after begging for water. He died and was thrown overboard. The boat he was on took 50 hours to sail from the Somali village of Shimbrale, east of Bossaso, to Yemen.

On Monday, two Somali women, one of them five-months-pregnant, were reported to have drowned off the coast of Yemen's Shabwa region, as smugglers disembarked passengers too far from the shore despite rough seas. Another person is missing and presumed dead. According to new arrivals there were 55 Somalis aboard the boat, which set out from the Somali village of Suweto east of Bossaso on the evening of 11 September. The vessel sailed through rough seas for some 41 hours before reaching Bir Ali, some 500 km east of Aden.

According to survivors, the smugglers approached the shore near Bir Ali but then turned away fearing capture by Yemeni authorities. The passengers were disembarked into deep waters in pitch darkness. Fifty-two people made it to shore. The bodies of the two women were recovered and buried in the vicinity of Bir Ali.

In both instances and after finding exhausted people on the shore, UNHCR's local partner Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS) provided the arrivals with high-energy biscuits and water before transporting them to the Mayfa'a Reception Centre (MRC) for registration, medical care and rest.

We are also following a separate dramatic story unfolding on Yemen's Red Sea coast. Over the past three months, UNHCR and its implementing partners in the Bab El-Mandab transit centre, some 190 km west of Aden, have noted increasing mortality among new Ethiopian arrivals from Djibouti. Since June, over 40 corpses have been discovered along the Yemeni Red Sea shore. In addition, a growing number of Ethiopian arrivals have been found to be suffering violent diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. UNHCR's partners, the Yemeni Red Crescent Society and SHS, have transported people to medical facilities. A single clinic, at the Kharaz refugee camp near Bab El-Mandab has treated 47 such cases.

These Ethiopians began their sea voyage in Obock in Djibouti and have told our staff that people die in Obock daily, suffering severe diarrhea. They say that Ethiopians arrive in Obock exhausted after walking for two days from the border. They are then held in Obock by Somali and Djiboutian smugglers and left for days or weeks with no access to food and safe water. According to new Ethiopian arrivals, eight out of ten wells in Obock are contaminated and another two hold salty water. Hunger, dehydration, salty water and severe diarrhea appear to be the main causes for the deaths.

In Yemen, UNHCR has established mechanisms for referral, identification and burial of the bodies found on the beaches. The Yemeni Red Crescent, in coordination with local authorities, identifies the bodies and issues medical reports to confirm causes of death. For bodies referred to the Kharaz camp clinic, a local NGO partner is issuing death certificates. Most bodies have been buried in the vicinity of Bab El-Mandab, the others in the Kharaz refugee camp.

So far this year, 32,364 African migrants and refugees have arrived in Yemen from the Horn of Africa aboard 677 smuggling boats fleeing situations of conflict, instability, drought and poverty. During this period, some 50 people have lost their lives at sea trying to reach Yemen either due to poor health and sanitary conditions during their journey, drownings, or fatal injuries at the hands of smugglers.

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