UNHCR steps up efforts to stem Gulf of Aden crossings as numbers mount

News Stories, 22 May 2009

© UNHCR/A.Webster
Bossasso Beach in Somalia's northeast Puntland region is the departure point for smuggler's boats heading for Yemen.

BOSSASSO, Somalia, May 22 (UNHCR) Months have passed since Hoda's husband paid smugglers to take him from this port town in northern Somalia across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen, but she has not heard a word from him. She now believes he probably drowned at sea.

Despite such a vivid lesson in the risks of the Gulf crossing, Hoda plans to make the journey herself, leaving her youngest children in the care of her eldest daughter, who is just ten.

"I left Mogadishu with my husband and our children one year ago because people told us that Yemen was a proper place to live and that, once there, we could reach Saudi Arabia where we could find jobs easily," said Hoda who now lives in a settlement for internally displaced people in Bossasso. "By the time we reached here, we could afford only one seat on the smuggler's boat, so my husband went first. He was supposed to send me money so that I could join him with our children. That was seven months ago."

Each year tens of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa risk their lives to escape conflict, poverty, and recurrent drought by undertaking a dangerous journey through Somalia and across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Hundreds die on the way, while others are subjected to abuse and injury at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers.

Statistics show ever greater numbers of people are risking their lives in order to reach safety or the chance of a better life. The number of migrants and asylum seekers reaching Yemen in the first quarter of 2009 increased 30 per cent over the same period in 2008, a year when about 50,000 people successfully made the journey.

In response, UNHCR has stepped up its efforts to deter people from getting on the smugglers' boats in the main departure point of Bossasso, a crowded commercial town in Somalia's northeast Puntland region with large slum areas hosting displaced people and migrants. The smugglers' passengers, desperate to escape violence and poverty, come mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia. Each person pays $50 to $150 for the one- to four-day voyage across the Gulf of Aden (depending on the size of the boat and the route taken), often in dangerously over-crowded boats.

Last year an estimated 1,000 people died attempting to make the journey, sometimes because the ruthless smugglers throw passengers overboard far from shore in order to avoid detection by Yemeni authorities heedless of whether the passengers can swim or not.

The smugglers' boats are filled with a mixture of desperate migrants in search of better economic opportunities as well as asylum seekers and refugees. Before 2007, the majority of those reaching Yemen were young Ethiopian men hoping to find work in the Gulf States or in Europe. Today they are outnumbered by Somalis seeking to escape the violence and insecurity plaguing that country.

Through radio messages and leaflets, UNHCR tries to inform people about the asylum procedures both in Puntland and in the self-declared (but internationally unrecognized) state of Somaliland, so potential asylum-seekers don't feel they have to risk their lives crossing the Gulf to find protection.

UNHCR will soon be working with an international broadcaster to step up radio messages warning against the dangers of the Gulf of Aden crossing and informing Ethiopians in particular that unlike Somalis they do not automatically get refugee status in Yemen and risk being forcibly returned to Ethiopia by Yemeni authorities.

In Bossasso UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies are taking other steps to protect and assist would-be asylum seekers and displaced persons, such as giving plastic sheets, blankets, kitchen sets and sleeping mats to new mothers, pregnant women, widows with large families and elderly people. In some cases, such people also get small amounts of cash from UNHCR; psycho-social support and medical assistance is also provided.

UNHCR is also training local authorities to respect the rights of the migrating population. UNHCR Somalia and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) together lead a task force of humanitarian agencies which is also trying to prevent smuggling and respond to the urgent needs of its victims.

By Roberta Russo in Nairobi, Kenya
With reports from field staff in Bossasso