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Gulf of Aden smuggling claims more lives

Briefing notes

Gulf of Aden smuggling claims more lives

23 October 2007

Up to 66 people drowned Sunday in the Gulf of Aden after being forced overboard by smugglers off the coast of Yemen, survivors said. The tragedy involved two smugglers' boats that left the Somali coastal town of Bossaso on Saturday with 244 people aboard, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians. The two vessels reached the Yemen coast off Hawrat Al Shatee on Sunday, survivors said. Passengers were forced into deep water and many drowned, they said. A total of 28 bodies were buried on the beach, while 38 (29 Ethiopians and nine Somalis) remain missing.

So far this year, more than 20,000 people have made the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden in boats operated by ruthless smugglers operating from Somali ports. At least 439 people have died this year and another 489 are missing and feared dead.

Survivors of the weekend tragedy said the crew of one of the crowded boats had harshly beaten passengers during the voyage, injuring several of them. After being forced into deep water off the Yemeni coast, a total of 178 people managed to make it to shore. Some reported being robbed by Yemeni military personnel. Aid workers arriving on the scene provided food and water before transferring the group to UNHCR's Mayfaa reception centre.

While most of the arrivals in Yemen are Somalis and Ethiopians, we have recently received reports that Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians are also waiting in Somalia to make the voyage.

In 2006, some 26,000 people arrived in Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden. Yemen has worked closely with UNHCR and provides prima facie refugee recognition to Somalis. But the numbers show no sign of slowing, despite efforts on the both sides of the Gulf of Aden to warn people of the dangers involved in dealing with smugglers. Over the past year, UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a $7 million operation that includes additional staff, increased field presence, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp near Aden; and training programmes for the coast guard and other officials. In addition, we are planning to expand our presence along the remote, 300-km coastline with the opening of two additional field offices in 2008. We're also working closely with NGOs such as Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), which has established mobile clinics that can work at arrival points along the coast. We and other partners have also set up information projects on the Somali side 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.