Gulf of Aden drownings raise concerns over smuggling and rescue-at-sea tradition

News Stories, 15 April 2011

© SHS/N.Bajanoub
Bodies wash up on Yemen's shore after passengers were forced off a smugglers' boat. This 2005 scene is becoming all too common today.

GENEVA, April 15 (UNHCR) Refugee drownings in the Gulf of Aden this week have raised the UN refugee agency's concerns over the inhumane practices of smugglers and called into question the longstanding tradition of rescue at sea.

Two separate incidents in the Gulf of Aden this week have left 16 people dead and five missing. Most of the casualties were Somalis who had escaped violence and human rights abuses back home.

On Wednesday, a boat carrying 45 Somali refugees from Mogadishu and Hiran sank some two km off the Yemeni shores near the town of Murais, more than 300 km east of Aden. A total of 15 passengers drowned and five are missing. Those who survived swam ashore, where they were later found by UNHCR's partner Society for Humanitarian Solidarity (SHS) and taken to the Ahwar Reception Centre for care and recovery.

The surviving passengers said the smugglers' boat had set sail on Monday evening from the Elayo area of Bossaso in Puntland, northern Somalia. It immediately ran into heavy winds and rough seas and they had to scoop water out to keep the boat afloat.

On Tuesday afternoon, the boat approached the Yemeni coast but the crew refused to approach the shore, fearing interception by the Yemeni Coast Guard. Hungry and dehydrated, the passengers began crying and shouting but the crew decided to stay out at sea till the morning. The boat eventually sank in rough seas.

The survivors said that some time during the voyage they saw a cargo vessel and foreign naval ship. The naval ship approached their boat but ignored their cries for help.

"This is disturbing," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told journalists at a Geneva briefing on Friday. "We appeal to all shipmasters in the Gulf of Aden to uphold the longstanding tradition of rescue at sea and helping vessels in distress."

According to staff at the Ahwar reception centre, the survivors are exhausted, dehydrated and severely traumatized. UNHCR and SHS help includes providing counseling for survivors at the reception centre. The bodies of 15 victims have been buried at the Al-Haibalah cemetery. The smugglers reportedly survived and fled towards Mukalla, a town some 520 km east of Aden, as soon as they reached the shore.

In a separate incident, another smugglers' boat left from Elayo on Monday with 79 passengers on board 77 Ethiopians and two Somalis. They arrived off the coast of Yemen near Al-Kaida in Shabwa governorate on Wednesday at dawn. The crew dropped anchor in a deep area and forced the passengers into the sea.

An Ethiopian man drowned in the heavy waves. His body was recovered by SHS and buried at a cemetery at Al-Hamra, close to the Mayfa'a Reception Centre. SHS found 73 survivors and took them to Ahwar Reception Centre for care and support. The remaining survivors left from the beach on their own.

"UNHCR is alarmed by a growing number of deaths in the Gulf of Aden this year," said Mahecic, noting that 89 people are known to have drowned in January and February alone nearly six times the number (15) during the whole of 2010. "We also note with the great concern the resurgence of violence and inhumane treatment by smugglers of the refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants that they are transporting. The deadly record for the first three months is a stark manifestation of this trend."

So far this year, more than 6,500 Somalis and 18,800 Ethiopians have arrived in Yemen by boat.

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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.

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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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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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