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Yemen: Horrific boat tragedy

Briefing notes

Yemen: Horrific boat tragedy

16 September 2003

We have some more information about the latest horrific tragedy involving a boat off the coast of Yemen last week. The boat, which originated from a village near Bossasso in north-eastern Somalia, is believed to have been packed with a total of 161 people, the great majority of them from Ethiopia and the rest from Somalia. As of yesterday, 21 bodies had been found, of whom 2 were Somalis and 19 were Ethiopians. In addition, 111 survivors had been located - 92 of them Ethiopians and 19 Somalis. As many as 29 people are still unaccounted for.

According to survivors interviewed by UNHCR staff in Mayfa'a - which is more than 450 kilometres east of Aden - at around 15.00 hrs last Thursday the boat was still two or three kilometres off shore, when the crew panicked and started forcing the passengers overboard. They were threatened with guns and some were beaten with sticks and iron rods, until everyone on board was in the sea.

This was the second incident in three week in which ruthless people smugglers from the Bossasso area have forced their hapless passengers, including women and children, overboard. In the first episode, at least 12 people are believed to have drowned and many more were unaccounted for.

An average of around 10,000 people a year are believed to make the crossing from Somalia to Yemen, and sadly such incidents are not uncommon. Even when the people on board are not forced into the sea, they are often packed on to overcrowded boats with insufficient provisions. The boats are also often unseaworthy and several sinkings have occurred over the years, with large loss of life.

What is unusual about this latest incident is that such a large proportion of those on board were from Ethiopia rather than Somalia. Another boat which arrived safely yesterday morning on the Balhaf coast, close to Mayfa'a, showed a similar mix, with only 13 of the 80 people on board originating from Somalia, and the rest believed to be from Ethiopia. Until recent weeks the situation was very much the reverse. In addition some of those who have been interviewed say another 2,500 to 3,000 Ethiopians are waiting for boats in Bossasso, and there is some suggestion that the sudden surge in the number of Ethiopian migrants may be linked to the recent expulsion of illegal immigrants from Djibouti.

The Somali survivors from last week's boat incident have been taken to a transit centre in Mayfa'a. From there, those who wish to go to Al Kharaz camp near Aden, which currently holds around 10,000 Somalis, will be relocated there. UNHCR estimates there are more than 70,000 refugees in Yemen, over 90 percent of whom are Somalis. The government puts the total at more than 165,000.