Large numbers of people cross Gulf of Aden despite smuggling crackdown

Despite a smuggling crackdown in Somalia, large numbers of people continue to cross the Gulf of Aden. Since the start of the September-March sailing season, a known 35 smuggling boats carrying 3,536 people have crossed from Somalia to Yemen, but at least 54 people have died making the voyage and 60 are missing.

A Somali family in Yemen after making the perilous boat journey across the Gulf of Aden.   © UNHCR/R.Ek

SANAA, Yemen, October 6 (UNHCR) - Despite a smuggling crackdown in Somalia, large numbers of people continue to cross the Gulf of Aden, with almost 600 Somalis and Ethiopians landing on the Yemeni coast last Sunday alone.

Since the start of the September to March sailing season, at least 35 smuggling boats carrying 3,536 people have crossed from Somalia to Yemen. On the first day of October, five boats carrying 575 Somalis and Ethiopians landed near Bir Ali in Yemen. But at least 54 people have died making the perilous voyage, and 60 are missing.

Recent arrivals said a smuggling crackdown by local militia and police was under way in Bossaso, in the self-declared autonomous state of Puntland, north-eastern Somalia. They told UNHCR staff in Yemen that many people - irrespective of nationality, gender or status - had allegedly been sent to Mogadishu or detained in Bossaso. These actions appear to be the result of a September 25 decree, issued by the president of Puntland, prohibiting human smuggling.

UNHCR has repeatedly called for international action and donor support to tackle the root causes of people smuggling in the Gulf of Aden, including protection for the victims and prosecution of smugglers.

"We appreciate the fact that the local authorities have started to actively curtail the activities of illegal smuggling bands which have been operating for years around Bossaso," said Betsy Greve, UNHCR's senior legal officer covering Africa.

"We are concerned that any crackdown, however, be carefully targeted and not lead to the detention or return to danger of people with protection needs," she added.

New arrivals told UNHCR that they were taken to the smugglers by so-called "agents" operating in Bossaso and then waited up to a week at various departure points in Puntland. The fees charged for the voyage had dropped by 50 percent in late September, but have reportedly gone up again - from US$50 to $70 - in the last few days. With the crackdown in Bossaso, boats now appear to be leaving from other departure points along the 700-km Puntland coastline.

UNHCR earlier this year launched an awareness campaign in Puntland aimed at warning potential passengers of the dangers involved in using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. But many people continue to take the risk and recorded arrival figures are way up on the same period last year.

"It is deeply disturbing to see such high numbers early in the sailing season - a 100 percent increase from last year's arrivals around the same time," said Saado Quol, UNHCR's senior protection officer in Yemen.

"Despite our attempts to warn the displaced and the world about the massive risks and the cruelty of the smugglers, people just seem too desperate to leave their homes and risk their lives in order to find safety or better opportunities," he added.

Of the more than 3,500 people known to have arrived in Yemen since early September, over 1,900 went to UNHCR's May'fa reception centre near Bir Ali on the southern Yemeni coast. Often dehydrated and severely traumatised by the journey, survivors reaching the centre are provided with food, medical care and other assistance.

In September, some 526 asylum seekers, mostly Somalis, were transferred to Al Kharaz camp, about 100 km west of Aden. Al Kharaz has more than 9,100 Somali and Ethiopian refugees and asylum seekers cared for by UNHCR.

Many of the survivors, who are mostly men, cite insecurity, drought and economic hardship in Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan as reasons for leaving their countries. Most of the Somalis making the journey are from the southern and central regions of Mogadishu and Baidoa, lower Juba and central Shabelle. The Ethiopians originate mostly from Addis Ababa, Shoa Arsi, Bale, Hara, Tigray, Walla and the Ogaden region.