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Gulf of Aden: More deaths

Briefing notes

Gulf of Aden: More deaths

18 December 2007

Once again, the Gulf of Aden has taken its toll. On Saturday, at least 58 people - 54 Ethiopians and four Somalis - were confirmed dead, while 37 people remain missing from a boat carrying 148 people that capsized off the coast of Yemen. A total of 53 people made it to shore. On Sunday, another boat carrying 270 people reportedly hit a rock right in front off the Yemeni beach and broke into three pieces. At least 173 people made it to shore, but many of the remaining people are feared to have drowned, including several children who were on board. So far only two bodies have been buried, while many others have reportedly started washing ashore. At this point, we do not know the total number of the dead.

Survivors from the first boat told us that their vessel had encountered engine problems during the trip. When the smugglers saw 'suspicious' lights ahead of them on the Yemeni shores, they decided to turn off the engine. The smugglers then started arguing whether to return to Somalia or not with the malfunctioning boat. One of the smugglers out of anger then tore a tarpaulin, used around the boat to prevent waves and wind, causing water to enter the boat. This caused chaos and panic and led the boat to capsize and sink.

Survivors from the second boat told us that the sea and smugglers alike had been very rough during the journey. Passengers were harshly beaten and one man who could not stand the beating any longer jumped overboard and drowned. When the boat reached Yemeni waters, the smugglers spotted a Yemeni patrol boat and changed course. This was when it hit a rock.

The survivors of the two boats were given medical care, water and food assistance by Doctors without Borders (MSF) and our local partner, SHS, on the shore, before being transported to Mayfa'a reception centre.

This year has been a particularly tragic one as more than 1,400 people died in the Gulf of Aden, while over 28,300 people made it ashore on 300 boats. Between September and December this year the number of people who died increased massively - with 264 dying in September, 347 in October, 205 in November and 186 so far in December. The number of boats leaving Somalia increased during September (67) and October (77) as a result of the deteriorating situation inside Somalia. The number of boats crossing the Gulf of Aden, however, decreased during November (37) and December (27) as a result of the intensified patrolling by the Yemeni army and coast guards. Unfortunately, large numbers of innocent people continue to die.

Of those who made it to shore in Yemen in 2007, more than 18,500 sought initial assistance with UNHCR, while some 10,000 were taken care of in the refugee camp in Kharaz, near Aden.

Over the past year, UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a US$7 million operation that includes additional staff, increased field presence, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp, and training programmes for the coastguard and other officials.

In addition, we are expanding our presence along the remote, 300-km coastline with the opening of two additional field offices in 2008. UNHCR is also working closely with NGOs such as MSF, which has established mobile clinics that can work at arrival points along the coast.

On the Somali side, UNHCR and other partners have set up information projects to warn people about the dangers. But many of those fleeing say conditions in their homeland are so bad that they have nothing left to lose and are willing to take the risk.