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Yemen: Survivors tell of ship barbarity

Briefing notes

Yemen: Survivors tell of ship barbarity

26 August 2003

We have received reports from a group of Somali and Ethiopian refugees about a disturbing act of barbarity at sea that occurred a week ago in the Gulf of Aden.

According to 18 Ethiopian and Somali refugees now being treated by doctors in Aden, they are the survivors of a group of at least 30 persons who were forced into the sea at gunpoint off the coast of Yemen by the captain and crew of a vessel sailing from Marer, in Somalia's north-eastern Puntland region.

The survivors said that the captain and crew of the boat were paid to take them to Yemen but they refused to approach the beach and instead beat the passengers and forced them into the sea. The 18 who made it to shore alive were discovered on the beach at the Mayfa'a Hajer coast (Hadhramout Governorate) on 19 August and taken to our reception centre at Mayfa'a, from where they were transported to Aden. They told us that many of the passengers who were forced into the ocean could not swim and are believe to have drowned.

The 18 survivors said there were a total of more than 80 persons on the boat, 50 of whom reportedly refused to jump into the seas despite the beatings they suffered at the hands of the crew. It is not known whether they were taken back to Somalia, or forced into the sea at another point along Yemen's desolate coast. The refugees say that there are more than 1,500 people, many of them Ethiopians, waiting in north-eastern Somalia for boats to carry them to Yemen.

Somali boat captains frequently resort to unconscionable acts while preying on the thousands of people still seeking to leave Somalia every year. Passengers are often forced into the sea while still far off shore by captains seeking to evade Yemeni coastal patrols, or take to sea in unseaworthy vessels with inadequate stocks of food, water and fuel. In February 2003 a Somali boat carrying some 130 persons sank within site of the Mayfa'a coast, with only 84 confirmed survivors. That huge loss occurred less than a month after more than 80 persons died after their vessel's engine exploded and fire broke out, forcing the passengers to jump into the sea.

Since the collapse of Somalia's central government, both asylum seekers and migrants seeking a better future have attempted to reach Yemen, which hosts the Arab world's largest population of non-Palestinian refugees. We estimate that there are more than 70,000 refugees in Yemen, though the government puts the figure at more than 165,000 people. The vast majority are Somalis, but 11 other nationalities are also present among the refugee population.

The Sana'a government estimates that up to 10,000 Somalis arrive every year. Most of the Somalis live in urban areas, where they are self-supporting. UNHCR cares for about 10,000 Somalis in the Al Kharaz refugee camp near Aden and also operates a reception centre for new arrivals at Mayfa'a. Yemen grants prima facie refugee status to all Somali refugees.