Gulf of Aden smuggling can be deadly, UNHCR warns desperate migrants

News Stories, 19 December 2007

© UNHCR/A.Webster
Zahara and Nuria walked for 15 days from their home town in Ethiopia to reach Bosasso.

BOSSASO, Somalia, December 19 (UNHCR) One out of every 20 people who set out in rickety boats across the Gulf of Aden this year has perished. With deadly odds like that, the UN refugee agency has begun an advocacy campaign in the Horn of Africa to inform potential migrants about the perils of crossing illegally to Yemen.

Colourful leaflets including drawings as well as text printed in Somali and in three Ethiopian dialects are being disseminated throughout Somalia's Puntland region, while radio spots have been broadcast since October. The campaign also informs asylum-seekers coming from nearby countries that they can seek asylum directly in Somalia, and it asks the host community to treat migrants humanely. The advocacy campaign is currently being extended to South/Central Somalia and Ethiopia.

So far this year, over 28,000 people have made the perilous voyage from the port city of Bossaso, in north-eastern Somalia, to Yemen, in an attempt to reach the prosperous Gulf countries. More than 1,400 have died, killed by smugglers or drowned at sea. The most recent deaths of at least 58 people came last weekend when one smuggler's boat capsized, and another hit a rock and broke into pieces.

In Bossaso, awareness-raising for potential migrants is welcomed by local NGOs. "Migrants want a better life; they do not like to think about the dangers," a Somali aid worker says. "It is our duty to make sure they are fully aware that death may be awaiting them." Sheikh Abdulqader, chief of the elders in town, agrees: "We alone cannot prevent these desperate people from crossing. The support of the international community will help us curb down a tragedy that has been going on for too long."

In addition to the advocacy campaign, over the past year UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a $7 million operation, and announced Tuesday that the agency will expand its presence along the remote, 300-km Yemen coastline with the opening of two additional field offices in 2008.

In Bossaso, in a small Ethiopian café where an unintentionally ironic inscription on the wall reads "the sailor is the future of man" those about to board the smugglers' boats are reticent. A dozen young Amharic men chew khat, a local narcotic leaf, both excited and afraid by what is to come. Tonight, they will leave the town for a beach and board a rickety boat for Yemen.

All are nervous except Said, who has already crossed once. He says he was deported from Saudi Arabia a few months ago as he had no work permit. "Last time I crossed safely so I use the same smuggler this time," he says, adding that his wife is still in Saudi Arabia where she works as a maid, and that she sent him money for the trip. The two friends he talked into travelling with him from Ethiopia smile nervously when told about the dangers of the trip.

Not everyone will go tonight, though. Sitting next to a wall darkened by incense smoke, young Fahir seems so weak she can only whisper. "I came from Ethiopia with my husband after some neighbours, who were building a nice house, said there was money to be made in Saudi Arabia," she murmurs.

Once in Bossaso, though, her husband told her he could afford the crossing for only one of them and off he went, abandoning her and the baby in her womb. "I have no money to cross to Yemen, I have no money to go back to Ethiopia, and I cannot even work here to sustain myself because no one will hire a pregnant woman," she cries. Now, she adds, she just wishes she had stayed home.

Like Fahir, many migrants are stranded in Bossaso. "Even if you find a job as a porter in the port, you earn just enough to pay for three meals a day and one night in a shanty hotel made of cardboard walls, where you sleep crowded with dozens of other people," explains a young Ethiopian.

Some migrants can't even afford such a miserable roof over their head. After working all day in the port, sixteen-year-old Hassan still has to sleep in the open air in a ruined building. "After my mother died, my father took to beating me. One day I heard some people of our Ethiopian village had gone to Bossaso in order to cross to Yemen. When my father tried again to beat me, I fled and headed to that city." But he really didn't understand how hazardous the journey to Yemen would be before he got to Bossaso.

It's not only Ethiopians like Hassan who seek to cross the sea. As violence raged unabated in Mogadishu all year long, more and more Somalis began to choose this route. For the first time, the number of Somalis has exceeded that of the Ethiopians aboard the 300 boats that crossed this year.

Despite the dangers, Khadija wants to be one of them. She left the volatile Somali capital several months ago with her family and headed to Bossaso, where her husband boarded a boat, promising he would send money to his family.

"I never heard of him again," Khadija laments. "He must have drowned in the sea." She lives with her children in a squalid shelter located in one of Bossaso's settlements for internally displaced persons.

Now she's so desperate she plans to leave her babies in the care of her 10-year-old daughter so she can board a boat to Yemen and send home money. "I can neither go back with my children to Mogadishu, where they will die, nor remain in a town where they lack everything," she explains. She reasons that "God has already taken my husband's life. He will not take mine."

By Catherine Weibel in Bossaso, Somalia