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Gulf of Aden smuggling: Thousands crossing, dozens dying

Briefing notes

Gulf of Aden smuggling: Thousands crossing, dozens dying

22 September 2006

At least 22 smugglers' boats carrying more than 2,100 people across the Gulf of Aden have been reported by authorities in Yemen since the beginning of September. Thirty-nine people have reportedly died making the perilous journey, many of them by drowning, and another 53 are reported missing.

Records compiled by UNHCR's office in Yemen indicate 2,143 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan have made it to shore alive since September 2, when smugglers once again began sailing rickety, overcrowded boats across the Gulf of Aden with the onset of calmer weather in the region.

UNHCR has dealt with hundreds of survivors over the past weeks, and taken more than 1,400 of them to our May'fa reception centre, where they receive assistance, food and medical care. UNHCR also takes care of asylum seekers and refugees in its refugee camp near Aden.

On 16 September, three boats with 294 people left Shimbirale in Somalia and arrived two days later in Yemen. According to passengers, 15 people died during the voyage - 10 of them beaten to death by smugglers using wooden and steel clubs. The bodies were thrown overboard. The other five - including a 10-year-old child and a year-old infant - died when a Yemeni Coast Guard vessel came upon two of the smuggling boats and a gunfight ensued and a boat capsized. The mother of the dead infant gave birth to a baby boy few hours after her arrival in Yemen.

Despite the enormous risks, people continue risking their lives in search for safety and better economic opportunities. Some of the latest arrivals reported that they had waited for days in Shimbirale, Marera and Elai in Somalia for boats that would take them to Yemen. But upon departure, the smugglers confiscated water and food, including dates. Survivors said people on the boats were beaten and thrown overboard by the smugglers just for requesting water.

Yemen is one of the few countries in the region that has signed the 1951 Refugee Convention and has been very generous in receiving refugees. There are currently more than 88,000 registered refugees in Yemen, of which 84,000 are Somalis.