Massive rise this year in numbers crossing Gulf of Aden

News Stories, 4 March 2008

© UNHCR/SHS/May 2006
Risking All: The bodies of people who died trying to make the Gulf of Aden crossing.

GENEVA, March 4 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency reported on Tuesday that irregular migration to Yemen has almost trebled during the first two months of this year compared to the same period last year.

A total of 182 boats carrying 8,713 people had arrived in coastal areas of Yemen In the first two months of this year, and 113 people are confirmed to have died making the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden. At least 214 others are missing, most of whom are presumed to have drowned.

This is a steep increase compared to January and February last year, when UNHCR recorded 24 boats as making the journey, carrying 2,946 people. A total of 139 people died and 19 went missing and were never found during that period.

UNHCR's chief spokesman, Ron Redmond, told journalists in Geneva that the increase in arrivals this year was partly due to the use of new smuggling routes. "By the end of last year, the smugglers had started taking people mostly Somalis across the Red Sea from Djibouti. In 2007, an estimated 700 Somalis took the Djibouti route," he said.

The tactics used by the smugglers remain the same as last year. People travelling on small, fast boats have to pay an average of US$130 to US$150 while those travelling on the bigger and more crowded vessels pay between US$50 and US$70.

The journey can take 12 to 36 hours, depending on the weather, knowledge of the routes, sea conditions and the situation upon arrival. If smugglers meet patrol boats en route or see coast guards upon arrival, they either force their passengers overboard or attempt to take an alternative route, often adding many hours to the voyage.

The armed smugglers are often brutal. On February 20, eight boats carrying more than 500 passengers arrived at five different arrival points in Yemen. The smugglers on two of the boats carrying a total of 302 people forced the passengers to disembark in deep and rough waters, which led to the drowning of many of those aboard.

A total of 182 people made it to shore, 36 bodies were found and 84 remain missing. The new arrivals told UNHCR staff that the smugglers had severely beaten the passengers on the boat and taken their money and clothes. One traumatized person jumped overboard and drowned.

Another three people died in the hold of the boat due to asphyxiation and dehydration. Many of the new arrivals had also been stabbed. All of the injured receive medical care in UNHCR's May'fa reception centre near the Yemeni coast.

The UN refugee agency has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. During 2007 and early 2008, UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a US$7 million operation that includes extra staff, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees, and training programmes for the coast guards and other officials. These programmes will be expanded this year.

UNHCR is also expanding its presence along the remote, 300-kilometre-long coastline with the opening of two additional field offices. The refugee agency is working closely with aid organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has mobile clinics that can work along the coast.