Desperate people driven by hopes for the future to risk voyage to Yemen
BOSSASO, Somalia, September 12 (UNHCR) - They sleep in the streets, taking any work available to pay smugglers for the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden. The danger of drowning is outweighed by the hope of escaping the chaos and poverty of Somalia.
For at least five years, those seeking a better life in Yemen or oil-rich states of the Middle East have been coming to this port in north-east Somalia's Puntland region to attempt the 300-kilometre crossing. Since the annual September to May sailing season began this month, UNHCR has seen several hundred people arrive in the flimsy boats off Yemen.
Groups of Ethiopians and Somalis believed to be planning the risky crossing to reach Yemen can be seen heading to Bossaso, a well-known smuggling hub in this self-declared autonomous region. Police have stopped some, but have also been informed of boats departing with people on board.
For a fee of about US$50, they will be packed into rickety boats for a journey of up to 48 hours across the Gulf of Aden under the scorching sun. Not all will arrive. Four on the first boat this year died when forced overboard before reaching shore. The ride is extremely tough: boats capsize, some passengers are thrown overboard by the smugglers and most are forced to swim the final distance as the boats avoid touching the Yemeni coast.
During the last navigation season, the International Organization for Migration reported a dramatic rise in the number of people transiting through Puntland. UNHCR staff in Yemen say about one boat a day - and 100 people - arrive during the sailing season. Based on previous years, several hundred people will die before reaching Yemen.
"People are very desperate," said the police commander of Puntland region, General Yusuf Ahmed Khair, predicting higher numbers this year. Bossaso is a dusty, hot city with no paved streets and few buildings. It is surrounded by vast, miserable settlements of displaced people from all over Somalia. Thousands of Ethiopians live in various parts of the town.
However, because of its relative security and commercial activity, it attracts people from anarchic south and central Somalia and from Ethiopia. The fishing industry means that it is easy to find boats ready to cross the Gulf in Bossaso.
"Many Ethiopians were displaced because of the floods; many Somalis are fleeing Mogadishu and the south of Somalia because of the violence," Khair said "They want a better life and they believe Yemen is a paradise, so they want to travel."
Living conditions in Bossaso are tough. Most of those intending to cross the Gulf of Aden sleep in the streets and near the port while they raise money to pay the smugglers. Fortunate ones are sheltered by the Ethiopian community or other Somalis. In most cases, they hardly have the means to eat and prefer to save the little money they have to pay for their passage. Conditions are especially perilous for women, who are more vulnerable to rape and violence.
Somalis reaching Yemen get automatic refugee status because many are fleeing violent conflict, though not all apply for it. Ethiopians are not automatically considered refugees, but can have cases heard individually. There are currently 88,000 refugees in Yemen, of whom 84,000 are Somalis.
A year ago, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antónío Guterres called for international action to stem the flow of desperate people from Somalia to Yemen. "The international community has to help - and put pressure on - local authorities in Puntland and Bossaso to crack down on the smugglers."
UNHCR has worked with authorities to halt the smuggling, but officials say they do not have the resources to stop many of the boats. The police commander of Puntland says he has been able to intercept "only some" smugglers.
At the same time, local authorities say that those who have fled violence or persecution will not be returned from Bossaso to the areas they fled in Ethiopia or central and southern Somalia. UNHCR has been working with local authorities so asylum seekers can present their cases for recognition as refugees in Puntland. In August, police arrested 36 Ethiopians and southern Somalis they suspected would head to Yemen. Khair said police had saved their lives.
Ethiopian Hassan Mohamed was among those arrested. Like the others he maintained he had come to the buzzing port only to seek local work. He reluctantly admitted he had already crossed to Yemen twice. This time he was with his wife - the only woman in a group of men in their twenties - and claimed he had no intention of sailing again across the Gulf of Aden.
But the police believed the meagre belongings of the migrants told another story. They were carrying tiny bags of dried fruit and water, the strict minimum needed to survive a perilous journey where temperatures reach 40° Celsius.
By Catherine-Lune Grayson in Bossaso, Somalia