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UNHCR calls for urgent action to save lives in Gulf of Aden

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UNHCR calls for urgent action to save lives in Gulf of Aden

9 September 2005

9 September 2005

GENEVA - Citing a steadily rising death toll, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres called Friday for an urgent international effort to stem the flow of desperate people who are resorting to ruthless smugglers to take them from Somalia across the Gulf of Aden in unsafe vessels.

At least 150 people have died in the Gulf of Aden over the past three weeks, including 25 reported dead on Friday on the coast of Yemen. More than 75 people were believed to have drowned last week after smugglers on four boats forced them to jump overboard off the Yemen coast. Many others are missing from the four boats that were carrying up to 400 people. On Wednesday night, a Danish merchant ship rescued another 39 people who had been adrift in the Gulf of Aden for several days. One later died.

In Friday's latest incident, two boats operated by smugglers and carrying about 120 people were found offshore by Yemeni coastal guards. Ten people were found dead in the engine room of one boat - two with their hands tied behind their backs. Two others died after being taken ashore. Survivors said Friday that another 13 had died during the voyage and the bodies thrown overboard. Many others on the vessels were injured and 12 were reported in critical condition. Nearly all were suffering from thirst and hunger and several said they had been severely beaten by the smugglers, three of whom were arrested by the Yemenis.

Many deaths go unreported every year as hundreds of people are believed lost at sea between the months of September and March, when the weather is generally calm in the Gulf of Aden. Many of those trying to cross the Gulf set sail from the north-east Somalia town of Bossasso. UNHCR is appealing to local authorities in Bossasso, in Somalia's "Puntland" region, to crack down on the smugglers. Smuggling rings are preying not only on Somalis, but other nationalities as well. Many are trying to reach the Middle East and beyond in search of jobs, while others are asylum seekers. UNHCR operates a reception centre and a camp in Yemen, where many of those making the dangerous crossing come ashore. Friday's group was taken to the Mayfaah reception centre where they were given aid and medical treatment. Somalis who reach Yemen are recognised by UNHCR as refugees on a prima facie basis and taken to UNHCR's Al Kharaz refugee camp near Aden.

"With the sailing season just starting, we cannot simply stand by for the next several months while hundreds or thousands more desperate people go to their deaths in the Gulf of Aden at the hands of smugglers," High Commissioner Guterres said. "The international community has to help - and put pressure on - local authorities in Puntland and Bossasso to crack down on the smugglers. We need to get information to those being exploited by the smugglers as well, so they know the dangers. We're also appealing to international shippers to keep an eye out for boats in distress in the Gulf, and on governments in the region to do all they can to help those who need it on their shores."

Guterres praised the captain and crew of the Danish tanker ship Eli Maersk who on Wednesday night rescued 39 Somalis and Ethiopians adrift in the Gulf of Aden and later took them to Djibouti, where they were taken ashore on Thursday. The High Commissioner also thanked Djibouti authorities for their help. The group rescued by the Danish ship said they had been adrift for several days following engine failure. Two of the passengers were in critical condition and in urgent need of medical care. One woman had just delivered a baby, and all passengers were in dire need of water and food. One later died.

Yemen, one of the few countries in the region to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, has been generous in receiving migrants and refugees. There are presently some 47,000 Somalis registered with UNHCR as refugees on prima-facie basis in Yemen, but it's estimated that hundreds of thousands more people are in the country.

In a related development, UNHCR is organizing a two-day international meeting of experts on "Interception and Rescue-at-Sea in the Mediterranean," beginning Monday (12 Sept.) in Athens. The meeting will bring together experts from most Mediterranean states, as well as representatives from the shipping industry, international organisations, non-government organisations and academia to discuss how to reconcile migration controls with refugee protection.

The meeting in Athens is expected to provide a series of concrete recommendations for a second meeting to be held in Madrid on 17 and 18 October which will bring together government representatives from all the Mediterranean coastal states.