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Gulf of Aden: Sharp increase in voyages - and deaths

Briefing notes

Gulf of Aden: Sharp increase in voyages - and deaths

4 March 2008

Irregular migration to Yemen has increased massively during the first months of 2008 compared to the same time last year. By March 1, a total of 182 boats carrying 8,713 people had arrived in coastal areas of Yemen and at least 113 people died making the perilous voyage. At least 214 others are missing, most of whom are presumed to have drowned.

This is a steep increase from 2007, when 24 boats had made the journey across the Gulf of Aden in the first two months of the year, carrying 2,946 people. A total of 139 people died and 19 were never found during that period.

The increase in arrivals this year is partly due to the use of new smuggling routes. By the end of 2007, the smugglers had started taking people - mostly Somalis - across the Red Sea from Djibouti. In 2007, an estimated 700 Somalis had taken the Djibouti route.

The tactics used by the smugglers remain the same as last year. People travelling on small, fast boats have to pay an average of $130 to $150 while those travelling on the bigger and more crowded vessels pay between $50 and $70. The journey can take 12 to 36 hours, depending on the weather, knowledge of the routes, sea conditions and the situation upon arrival. If smugglers meet patrol boats en route or see coast guards upon arrival, they either force their passengers overboard or attempt to take an alternative route, often adding many hours to the voyage.

The armed smugglers are often brutal. On 20 February, eight boats carrying over 500 passengers arrived at five different arrival points in Yemen. The smugglers on two of the boats - carrying a total of 302 people - forced the passengers to disembark in deep and rough waters which led to the drowning of many of those aboard. A total of 182 people made it to shore, 36 bodies were found and 84 remain missing. The new arrivals told us that the smugglers had severely beaten the passengers on the boat and taken their money and clothes by force. One person - severely traumatised by the beating - jumped overboard and drowned. Another three people died in the hold of the boat due to asphyxiation and dehydration. The bodies had remained in the hold of the boat that sailed back to Bossaso. Many of the new arrivals had also been stabbed.

All of the injured receive medical care in UNHCR's May'fa reception centre near the coast.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. During 2007 and early 2008 UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a US$7 million operation that includes additional staff, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp, and training programmes for the coastguard and other officials. UNHCR will expand these programmes this year as the budget will be further increased.

UNHCR is also expanding its presence along the remote, 300-km coastline with the opening of two additional field offices. We are working closely with NGOs such as MSF (Médecins Sans Frontières), which has mobile clinics that can work at arrival points along the coast.