Perilous smuggling voyage from Somalia claims more lives off Yemen coast

Thursday, 28 December 2006

GENEVA - Seventeen people are confirmed dead and some 140 missing after the smugglers' boats they were travelling in from Somalia across the Gulf of Aden capsized off the Yemen coast.

The incident, involving four boats smuggling 515 people, occurred late Wednesday as the vessels were spotted approaching the coastline by Yemeni authorities. Survivors said the boats had set sail from Shimbarale in Somalia, carrying mainly Somalis and Ethiopians. Two of the smugglers' boats had reportedly offloaded their passengers and were then fired on by Yemeni security forces. According to Yemeni officials, the smugglers returned fire. The third and fourth boats - which had been waiting further offshore in the dark - tried to escape back to sea. One capsized near Al-Baida after it became unbalanced by agitated passengers. Authorities said several people were trapped under the boat. The other vessel, pursued by two Yemeni coastguard boats and a helicopter, was forced to head back to shore. But 300 metres from the beach, it capsized in the heavy seas.

Yemeni authorities said Thursday they captured all 17 smugglers and their four boats, and that a search operation was still underway for survivors.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said he was shocked by the loss of life.

"I am deeply saddened by this latest tragedy involving smugglers' boats carrying desperate people across the Gulf of Aden," Guterres said in Geneva. "Despite efforts to halt this horrible trade, brutal smugglers continue to prey on the desperation of poor people fleeing persecution and violence and those looking for better economic opportunities elsewhere. We urgently need a concerted international effort aimed at addressing root causes, educating would-be migrants and cracking down on the smugglers and traffickers based in Somalia."

The 357 survivors from Wednesday's incident were taken to UNHCR's Mayfa'a reception centre to recover from their ordeal and were given food and medical assistance.

Somalis on the boat said they came from the troubled areas of Bur-Hakaba, Baidawa and Belet Weyne in central Somalia. Many of them said they fled as a result of the current conflict between the Ethiopian-backed Somali Transition Federal Government and the Islamic Courts Union. UNHCR fears the current upsurge in fighting in southern and central Somalia could create a new wave of refugees and is asking neighbouring countries to keep their doors open to those seeking sanctuary.

Earlier this month, UNHCR expressed concern after Yemeni authorities fired on boats, killing two people.

More than 25,800 people have been recorded arriving in Yemen from Somalia this year. At least 330 people have died making the dangerous journey. Nearly 300 are missing, including 141 from Wednesday's incident, according to UNHCR records.

The boats from Somalia usually land along a remote, 300-km stretch of tribal-ruled coastline. UNHCR has only limited access to much of the insecure coast.

Somalis reaching Yemen get automatic refugee status because many are fleeing violent conflict, though not all apply for it. Ethiopians are not automatically considered refugees, but can have cases heard individually. There are currently more than 88,000 registered refugees in Yemen, of whom 84,000 are Somalis.