UNHCR calls for action after latest Gulf of Aden drownings
GENEVA, March 10 (UNHCR) - More than 100 people are feared to have drowned in the Gulf of Aden in the past week after smuggling attempts from Somalia to Yemen went awry. The UN refugee agency has called for concerted international efforts to deal with human traffickers and to solve the root causes that push people to take such risks.
Two separate drowning incidents have been reported to UNHCR in the last week. In the first case, six boats left Bossasso in north-eastern Somalia for Yemen on March 3. Along the way, one of the boats carrying 93 passengers developed technical problems and sank. Witnesses on the other boats said the crew of four were rescued but the passengers - reportedly Somalis and Ethiopians, including women and children - were left to die.
The smugglers then disembarked more than 450 passengers of the other five boats at Bir Ali, a coastal village in southern Yemen. Local authorities intercepted them and took them to the Mayfa'a reception centre nearby, where they received medical attention and food before being interviewed by UNHCR.
One of the Somalis was so badly beaten by the smugglers that he died of his injuries shortly after reaching shore. He was buried at Bir Ali.
Four days later, on 7 March, 85 passengers on another boat were ordered by the crew to jump into the sea before approaching the Yemeni coast. Sixty-seven reached shore while 18 - 17 Somalis and one Ethiopian - are feared to have drowned. Yemeni authorities have recovered seven bodies so far.
The survivors, who received emergency UNHCR assistance at Mayfa'a reception centre, told the refugee agency that some 1,500 people are waiting to be smuggled into Yemen from Bossasso in the coming days. The Mayfa'a centre is already struggling to cope with the 535 new arrivals in less than a week.
The two incidents are the latest in a series of similar tragedies that have seen untold deaths in the past few years. Many are not even reported.
"Every year, thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians fall prey to unscrupulous traffickers in the hope of being smuggled into Yemen, from where many seek to make their way into Europe," said UNHCR in a press statement on Thursday. "They are fleeing poverty, and in Somalia's case insecurity, in their homeland. Amongst these desperate people are refugees trying to escape persecution and violence."
It added, "These latest deaths once again highlight the urgent need for a concerted international effort to address the root causes of this growing disaster. Amongst the issues that need to be considered are how to deal with smugglers and human traffickers, developmental needs in countries of origin, as well as how to ensure that people in need of international protection do not have to resort to such desperate measures to receive the help they need."
Countries of transit should also receive help to cope with the burden of receiving thousands of people every year, urged UNHCR. Yemen, the only Gulf state to have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, has been very generous towards migrants and refugees alike, despite the country's own economic problems.
For example, Somalis who arrive in Yemen are granted refugee status on a prima facie basis, i.e. because they belong to a specific group (in this case their nationality), rather than on a case-by-case basis.
UNHCR has registered some 47,000 Somalis in Yemen, while the authorities estimate that the number is actually hundreds of thousands more.
By Marie-Hélène Verney