At least 26 people dead in Gulf of Aden smuggling incident

News Stories, 10 September 2008

© UNHCR/A.Fazzina
The death of at least 26 people in one incident in the Gulf of Aden this week highlights the dangers of crossing from the Horn of Africa to Yemen on smugglers' boats. But this does not deter people, who continue to line up for boats on the Somali coast.

AHWAR, Yemen, September 10 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency reported on Wednesday that at least 26 people lost their lives after smugglers transporting them across the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa forced them overboard off the coast of Yemen. Several other people are missing.

A UNHCR press release cited survivors as saying that a boat carrying about 120 people stopped offshore in deep water on Tuesday and all passengers were forced overboard at gunpoint.

"They said those who refused were pushed and beaten. Some were killed. Survivors said they had earlier been assured by the smugglers that a smaller vessel would take them ashore, but none arrived," the release said.

At least 74 survivors made it to the beach and were taken to UNHCR's reception centre at Ahwar. Authorities said Wednesday morning that 26 bodies had so far been recovered and 20 people were still missing.

The latest tragedy coincides with an upsurge in people smuggling across the Gulf of Aden from strife-torn Somalia. So far this year, at least 25,859 people have arrived in Yemen after making the perilous voyage aboard smugglers' boats. More than 200 have died and at least 225 remain missing. At the same time last year, there were 9,153 arrivals, 267 dead and 118 missing.

Smuggling normally subsides between May and September because of stormy weather in the Gulf of Aden. With the early onset of calmer weather in August, smuggling resumed last month when 59 boats brought more than 1,700 desperate people to Yemen nearly triple the number of arrivals for the same month last year when 633 people landed in 10 boats.

In late August, 12 people died from one boat, eight of them after jumping into the sea when a gunbattle erupted between the Yemeni military and smugglers near the coast.

Numerous smugglers' boats were reported off the Yemen coast again on Wednesday, the statement said, adding: "UNHCR believes several factors are responsible for the recent increase in arrivals, including continuing strife and displacement in Somalia and the opening of new smuggling routes across the Gulf of Aden."

Smugglers are also believed to be attempting to take advantage of a perceived decline in coastal surveillance during Ramadan, the Islamic holy fasting month which began in early September.

UNHCR and other international agencies have been jointly calling for global action to better address this deadly problem. Over the past year, the refugee agency has substantially stepped up its work in Yemen.

Its US$18.9 million programme in Yemen currently a little more than half funded is providing additional staff, improved humanitarian assistance, additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp, and training programmes for Yemeni coast guards and other officials.

The agency has also increased its presence along the remote Yemeni coast with the opening of its second reception centre at Ahwar. The other is at Mayfa'a.

In May, a regional conference was co-convened by UNHCR to establish a regional mechanism and long-term plan of action on refugee protection and mixed migration in the Gulf of Aden. The mixed flow of people across the gulf includes a significant number of refugees.

Yemen has carried a major burden in dealing with irregular migratory movements in the region, yet has maintained an open-door policy to refugees. Support from the international community, however, remains an absolute necessity.