Death toll from perilous Gulf of Aden crossings this year tops 350
BOSSASO, Somalia, November 24 (UNHCR) - More than 22,000 people have crossed the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen this year in rickety smugglers' boats, most of them leaving from beaches near this bustling town in the north-east of the country.
At least 355 died making the perilous voyage and more than 150 are missing, according to UNHCR records. About half of those arriving on the coast of Yemen eventually sought and received assistance from the refugee agency upon arrival.
Over the past eight days, nearly 1,500 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived in 12 smugglers' boats. At least 18 people aboard those boats died and 17 are missing. The boats from Somalia usually land along a remote, 300-km stretch of tribal-ruled coastline. UNHCR, which has only limited access to the often insecure coast, was able over the past eight days to transport 853 Somalis and Ethiopians to the May'fa reception centre, providing them with food, water, medical care and other assistance.
Most new arrivals said they were from southern and central Somalia, where they claim their freedom has been significantly curtailed since the region came under the control earlier this year of the Islamic Courts Union. They also cited an increase in inter-tribal and inter-clan conflict and said they feared for their lives.
Some of the arrivals said they came from the Ethiopian-Somali border, near Boroma and Hargeisa, where they said there had been recent military activity.
Meanwhile, 110 Ethiopian illegal migrants were expected to be flown back home on Friday from Bossaso after they agreed during screening interviews with UNHCR to return to Ethiopia. With today's flight, a total of 220 would have gone home this week.
Abdi Mohammed, who arrived in Bossaso in August, was among those flown back home earlier this week. Before leaving he told UNHCR that he had changed his mind about crossing to Yemen after hearing on the eve of his departure that a boat had capsized and all on board were drowned. "When I look at the sea, I am too scared to take the boat. I have a farm and I have decided that I will work and support my family in my country," he said.
The returned migrants were part of a group of more than 2,000 Ethiopians who were rounded up and detained last month by Somali authorities in a crackdown on human smuggling and trafficking through north-east Somalia, also known as Puntland.
Some 1,300 of the Ethiopians were forcibly sent back home on October 8 before UN agencies intervened and appealed to Somali authorities to allow UNHCR to screen the remaining group of more than 600 for possible asylum seekers. But about half of those detainees managed to get out of the Somali-guarded centre and will likely try to make the Gulf of Aden crossing despite warnings of the dangers involved.
Seventy asylum seekers among the group, who were identified by UNHCR following screening at a makeshift interview centre on the outskirts of Bossaso, were taken on Thursday to the Puntland capital Garowe, some 400 kilometres south of Bossaso, where further status determination will be conducted.
"We have agreed with the Puntland authorities that refugee status determination will be carried out in Garowe, which is midway from Bossaso and the border entry point used by migrants. This way we can reach out to the asylum seekers, who may be mixed with migrants, early enough before they reach Bossaso and attempt to make the dangerous crossing to Yemen," said Guillermo Bettocchi, UNHCR's representative for Somalia.
Among the 70 asylum seekers were four unaccompanied children, including a 13-year-old orphan boy from Oromia in Ethiopia who said he left his village after his parents were killed and was afraid to go home.
Another of the 70, Abdalla, said he had wanted to travel to Yemen and feared for his life if sent back home. He claimed that he and his brother had fled from an Ethiopian jail, where they had been held to force them to give information about their father who was a member of the Oromo Liberation Front.
"We had heard that UNHCR was giving people cards in Yemen and that people with cards would be cared for by UNHCR," said Abdalla, who made his way to Bossaso with his wife and brother. The brother went first, but drowned during the crossing. Abdulla and his wife were caught in a police sweep.
Bossaso still has an estimated 22,000 internally displaced people from throughout Somalia and up to 5,000 mainly Ethiopian migrants, according to estimates by authorities.
By Millicent Mutuli in Bossaso, Somalia