Deadly start to Gulf of Aden sailing season

At least three people lose their lives as the new sailing season for civilians desperate to cross the Gulf of Aden to reach Yemen gets under way.

As day breaks, a man's body is slowly washed onto a Yemeni beach by the incoming tide. He died trying to cross the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa.  © UNHCR/A.Fazzina

ADEN, Yemen, September 17 (UNHCR) - The new sailing season for civilians desperate to cross the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa to Yemen has resumed, but already at least three people have lost their lives in the attempt.

Every year, tens of thousands of people board rickety smugglers' boats to make the perilous crossing during the September-June season, but hundreds die or are murdered every year on the high seas. Most are Somalis displaced by conflict in their country or Ethiopian refugees. They cross from northern Somalia or Djibouti.

According to information from new arrivals in Yemen this week, an Ethiopian man was beaten to death on a boat carrying 105 African migrants and refugees from a village near the Somali port of Bossaso. The victim had been sitting below deck in stifling conditions and was beaten by the smugglers and locked in the engine room after begging for water. The man died and his body was thrown overboard.

On Monday, two Somali women, one of them five months pregnant, were reported to have drowned off 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 another village east of Bossaso last Saturday. The vessel sailed through rough seas for some 41 hours before approaching Bir Ali, 500 kilometres east of Aden.

But the smugglers reportedly turned away as they feared capture by the Yemeni authorities. The passengers were told to get off in deep water - all but three made it to shore. The bodies of the two women were recovered and buried near Bir Ali.

UNHCR's local partner, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS), provided the survivors of both boats with high-energy biscuits and water before transporting them to the Mayfa'a Reception Centre for registration, medical care and rest.

The refugee agency is 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, more than 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 diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration. 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 UNHCR staff that people die in Obock daily, suffering severe diarrhoea. 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 10 wells in Obock are contaminated and another two hold salty water. Hunger, dehydration, salty water and severe diarrhoea appear to be the main causes of 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 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 camp.

So far this year, 32,364 African migrants and refugees are known to 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 - due to poor health and sanitary conditions during their journey, drowning or fatal injuries at the hands of smugglers.

By Rocco Nuri in Aden, Yemen