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Somalia/Yemen: Thousands still crossing, dozens still dying

Briefing notes

Somalia/Yemen: Thousands still crossing, dozens still dying

20 October 2006

Despite a crackdown in some parts of Somalia's Puntland region, hundreds of Somalis, Ethiopians and Sudanese are still resorting to smugglers' boats to make the perilous journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen - and some are still dying. Since the onset of better sailing weather in early September, UNHCR staff in Yemen have recorded the arrival of more than 5,700 people in 56 boats. Based on reports from passengers and Yemen authorities, 64 people have died making the crossing and 62 are missing.

On Oct. 13-14, eight boats carrying a total of 853 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived at Jilaa in southern Yemen's Shabwa governorate. Passengers on one boat reported that five Ethiopians were beaten by the smugglers, thrown overboard and attacked by sharks in view of the others on the vessel. Upon arrival on the Yemen coast, the smugglers forced 25 Ethiopians to remain onboard one of the boats because it had developed engine trouble and their weight was required to maintain balance for the return voyage to Somalia. They have not been seen since.

Of the more than 5,700 arrivals since early September, a total of 3,314 Somalis, 200 Ethiopians and two Sudanese were transported to UNHCR's May'fa reception centre near Bir'Ali in southern Yemen. There, they received medical care, food and assistance from UNHCR and its partners.

On the Somalia side, meanwhile, UNHCR yesterday (Thursday) began interviewing and counselling Ethiopians who have arrived in Puntland recently following an agreement earlier this week with local authorities. This agreement allows us to properly identify potential asylum seekers among the group. The agreement followed reports about 10 days ago that some 1,300 Ethiopian migrants had been returned to the border town of Gallali, in south-eastern Ethiopia, after authorities in Puntland issued a Sept. 25 decree aimed at stopping human smuggling from Somalia across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

We are establishing a transit facility near Bossaso on a piece of land identified by the Puntland authorities and will conduct the screening process there. Our six-member team in Bossaso has already started to conduct interviews with a group of some 600 Ethiopians who are being held at a mosque in Bossaso by the Puntland authorities. There are an estimated 50 unaccompanied children among them. We are sending a specialist to Bossaso determine their needs and status.

The screening process is being handled by UNHCR, while other international and local non-governmental organizations have also offered us their assistance, including assisting in transportation for the return of the Ethiopians. The Puntland authorities estimate that there are at least another 3,000 Ethiopians currently in Puntland. UNHCR will also proceed with screening this group.