Fifteen drown in Gulf of Aden amid surge in people smuggling to Yemen

News Stories, 19 January 2009

© Dagens Nyheter/Paul Hansen
Young people who made it safely across the Gulf of Aden, but who face an uncertain future.

ADEN, Yemen, January 19 (UNHCR) Two smugglers' boats carrying Somalis and Ethiopians have capsized in the high seas separating the Horn of Africa and Yemen, leaving at least 15 people dead and a dozen missing.

The boats were transporting 270 people when they foundered in separate incidents over the weekend in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. "The Yemeni coastguard is still searching for survivors," said Leila Nassif, head of the UNHCR sub-office in Aden. "We are providing medical aid and food to the survivors at our reception centres along the Yemen coast."

The first boat was carrying 150 passengers, mostly non-Somalis, from the Djibouti town of Obock. The smugglers lost their way before eventually sighting Yemen on Friday. But the engine broke down and the boat overturned in deep water close to the shore.

Yemeni authorities have recovered six bodies, while 32 passengers who made it to shore near Dhubab, 200 kilometres west of Aden, were given first, aid, food and water. The remaining 112 passengers are believed to have reached land, but their whereabouts were not immediately known.

In the second incident, a boat carrying 120 people capsized on Sunday off the Yemeni town of Ahwar after leaving Murera in Somalia last Wednesday and heading out into the Gulf of Aden. Nine bodies were recovered and buried by a local aid agency, while 99 people are known to have made it to shore. The remaining 12 are missing and feared dead.

Hundreds of Africans die every year trying to reach Yemen in search of a brighter future or to escape persecution and conflict. Many lose their lives in the turbulent waters separating the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula.

The latest tragedy coincides with an upsurge in people smuggling across the Gulf of Aden. Final statistics for 2008 show that more than 50,000 people made the perilous voyage in smugglers' boats, and that at least 590 drowned or were killed by the smugglers. Another 359 were reported missing.

"The number of new arrivals increased significantly in 2008, with nearly twice as many people landing on Yemen's shores as last year. Although such numbers place an increasing burden on Yemen's already strained economy, the Yemeni government continues to welcome refugees and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa, for which the international community is sincerely grateful," said Claire Bourgeois, UNHCR's representative in Yemen.

The increase in arrivals reflects the desperate situation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, a region scarred by civil war, political instability, famine and poverty.