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Yemen: The price of a passage across the Gulf of Aden - death

Briefing notes

Yemen: The price of a passage across the Gulf of Aden - death

28 February 2006 Also available in:

The grim death toll of asylum seekers and migrants dying while trying to cross the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen searching for refuge or a better life rose again over the weekend with another brutally callous incident. On Saturday, our office in Aden, Yemen, said it had information that a smuggler's boat sailing from Somalia had forced all of its 137 passengers into deep waters off the Yemeni coast, before turning around and heading back to Somalia. Aboard were 134 Somalis and three Ethiopians, including men, women and children.

By Monday evening, 84 people had managed to reach shore safely, while 33 had been found dead on the Al Hodeiya shore, 10 km east of Bir Ali on the southern coast. The remaining passengers, including children, are still missing and we fear their chances of survival are now extremely slim. Our team in Aden is taking care of the survivors, giving them medical care, food and non-food items.

The latest tragic incident once again highlights the urgent need for joint international and local efforts to address this problem and minimise the flow of desperate people who fall victim to ruthless smugglers. Thousands of Somalis, many fleeing violence in their homeland, arrive in Yemen every year - averaging an estimated 100 people a day during the annual September to March period of good sailing conditions - after making the perilous crossing. They are automatically given prima facie refugee status on arrival. The smuggling networks, which target migrants as well as asylum seekers, are well organised with some of the people leaving their homes from as far as Sri Lanka, Eritrea and Ethiopia. However the risks of the voyage are extremely high, with passengers often paying the ultimate price.

Smugglers frequently beat their passengers or force them overboard while still far from shore, sometimes with their hands tied behind their backs, leaving them to the mercy of the seas.

In the period from 12-17 January alone, 22 boats carrying an unknown number of Somalis and Ethiopians arrived in Yemen. Of those, UNHCR registered 1,217 Somalis and 39 Ethiopians. On 16 January, a boat carrying 65 people and six dead bodies arrived in Yemen. Another 14 people had reportedly died during the voyage.

UNHCR has been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. In January, we produced a video to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings. We are now working on a radio programme in the local languages which will hopefully reach more people.

At the same time, we are also calling on donors to support the international community in its efforts to improve protection and assistance to internally displaced persons in Puntland who live in very difficult circumstances. Without addressing the root causes of the outflow, progress in stemming the smuggling will be extremely limited.

In a separate development, UNHCR's Yemen office will on Wednesday finish the first phase of a large-scale refugee registration exercise in the capital Sana'a. The Yemen government and UNHCR had agreed in November to start re-registering thousands of refugees, most of them Somalis. So far, some 16,000 Somalis have been registered in Sana'a, where most of refugees live. The registration exercise will continue in five other registration centres in the country. The last registration took place in 2003.

Yemen, one of the few countries in the region to have signed the 1951 refugee convention, has been generous in receiving refugees. There are currently more than 80,000 registered refugees in Yemen, of which 75,000 are Somalis.