More than 50 Somali refugees drown when boat capsizes in Gulf of Aden

News Stories, 24 February 2011

© Alixandra Fazzina
These people are waiting to board a boat to take them across the Gulf of Aden. Many people have died during the journey.

GENEVA, February 24 (UNHCR) UNHCR on Thursday said it was "horrified," following reports that more than 50 Somali refugees are believed to have drowned at the weekend when their boat capsized while crossing the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

Fifty-four of the dead or missing were Somali refugees, including six children, while the remaining three were smugglers, UNHCR said in a press release. It added that the incident occurred on Sunday and there was just one male survivor.

"Based on what we know so far this is the largest loss of life in the seas between Somalia and Yemen in a single incident since January 2008," the UN refugee agency said. On that occasion, smugglers forced 135 people into the water from a boat, causing it to capsize 114 people drowned.

"We are horrified by this latest tragedy that adds to the terrible suffering of the Somali people," added High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "The Gulf of Aden remains one of the deadliest routes for those fleeing the fatal mix of conflict, violence and human rights abuses in the Horn of Africa."

The 42-year-old survivor of Sunday's capsizing swam for almost a day before reaching the Yemeni coast near the port of Bir Ali, some 400 kilometres east of Aden. As of late Wednesday, 23 bodies had been recovered since a search was mounted by the Yemeni navy. No more survivors have been found.

The survivor, who had fled fighting in Mogadishu with his wife and three children, said the boat began taking on water after being struck repeatedly by strong waves. Eventually it capsized. Just nine men, including the three smugglers, were left alive at this stage, clinging to small plastic tanks. The survivor did not know what happened to these people.

The man was eventually helped by UNHCR's local partner, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity. He told UNHCR that his family and other passengers had boarded a small two-engine boat near the port town of Bossaso in northern Somalia on Friday evening. On average it takes three days for boats to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

With the latest deaths, 89 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the perilous waters been Somalia and Yemen this year. All Somalis reaching Yemen by unauthorized sea passage are regarded as refugees.

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The government is trying to address the problem and, in February 2013, announced the creation of 4,000 additional places in state-run reception centres for asylum-seekers. But many asylum-seekers are still forced to sleep rough or to occupy empty buildings. One such building, dubbed the "Refugee Hotel" by its transient population, lies on the outskirts of the eastern city of Dijon. It illustrates the critical accommodation situation.

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Crossing the Gulf of Aden

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.

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Somalia/Ethiopia

In February 2005, one of the last groups of Somalilander refugees to leave Aisha refugee camp in eastern Ethiopia boarded a UNHCR convoy and headed home to Harrirad in North-west Somalia - the self-declared independent state of Somaliland. Two years ago Harrirad was a tiny, sleepy village with only 67 buildings, but today more than 1,000 people live there, nearly all of whom are former refugees rebuilding their lives.

As the refugees flow back into Somalia, UNHCR plans to close Aisha camp by the middle of the year. The few remaining refugees in Aisha - who come from southern Somalia - will most likely be moved to the last eastern camp, Kebribeyah, already home to more than 10,000 refugees who cannot go home to Mogadishu and other areas in southern Somalia because of continuing lawlessness there. So far refugees have been returning to only two areas of the country - Somaliland and Puntland in the north-east.

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