French Navy helps rescue boat people, but seven die in Aden accident

Briefing Notes, 24 March 2009

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmond to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 24 March 2009, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

The French Navy helped rescue scores of Somali and Ethiopian boat people at the weekend, but at least seven of them drowned when their vessel capisized shortly after docking in the Yemeni port of Aden. Five people are missing and presumed dead.

The tragedy occurred Saturday as passengers tried to disembark from the rickety smugglers' boat, which had just been towed to the Yemeni coast by a French frigate that on Thursday had found it adrift and taking on water in the Gulf of Aden, about 200 kms from Aden and 86 kms off the coast of Yemen. Hence the smugglers' boat was inside the Yemeni Maritime Rescue Coordination Center's area and therefore under the area of responsibility of Yemen. The crew of the French frigate, Floreal, which is part of the European Union's Atalanta Operation in the Gulf of Aden, stopped the leak and then towed the boat, which was carrying 104 people, to Aden. As it docked at a pier, the frightened passengers all rushed at the same time to disembark, causing the vessel to founder because of the sudden shift in balance.

French sailors and the Yemeni coastguard rescued 85 passengers and four of the smugglers, who were later arrested. Nineteen of the passengers were taken to a hospital in Aden for medical treatment, while 66 people were transferred to the compound of a local aid agency.

We are grateful to the French Navy and the Yemeni authorities, including port officials and the coastguard, for the rescue operation. UNHCR staff were present when the accident happened because they had earlier been informed that a boat was being towed to Aden carrying people who hoped to cross from Somalia to Yemen. Our local partners provided first aid, food and water to the survivors.

So far this year, a total of 260 boats and 13,250 people have made the perilous Gulf of Aden crossing from the Horn of Africa to the Yemen coast. To date, 54 people are reported dead and 36 missing at sea.