More than 50 Somali refugees drown when boat capsizes in Gulf of Aden

UNHCR “horrified” following reports that more than 50 Somali refugees drowned at the weekend when their boat capsized in the Gulf of Aden.

These people are waiting to board a boat to take them across the Gulf of Aden. Many people have died during the journey.  © Alixandra Fazzina

GENEVA, February 24 (UNHCR) - UNHCR on Thursday said it was "horrified," following reports that more than 50 Somali refugees are believed to have drowned at the weekend when their boat capsized while crossing the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

Fifty-four of the dead or missing were Somali refugees, including six children, while the remaining three were smugglers, UNHCR said in a press release. It added that the incident occurred on Sunday and there was just one male survivor.

"Based on what we know so far this is the largest loss of life in the seas between Somalia and Yemen in a single incident since January 2008," the UN refugee agency said. On that occasion, smugglers forced 135 people into the water from a boat, causing it to capsize - 114 people drowned.

"We are horrified by this latest tragedy that adds to the terrible suffering of the Somali people," added High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. "The Gulf of Aden remains one of the deadliest routes for those fleeing the fatal mix of conflict, violence and human rights abuses in the Horn of Africa."

The 42-year-old survivor of Sunday's capsizing swam for almost a day before reaching the Yemeni coast near the port of Bir Ali, some 400 kilometres east of Aden. As of late Wednesday, 23 bodies had been recovered since a search was mounted by the Yemeni navy. No more survivors have been found.

The survivor, who had fled fighting in Mogadishu with his wife and three children, said the boat began taking on water after being struck repeatedly by strong waves. Eventually it capsized. Just nine men, including the three smugglers, were left alive at this stage, clinging to small plastic tanks. The survivor did not know what happened to these people.

The man was eventually helped by UNHCR's local partner, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity. He told UNHCR that his family and other passengers had boarded a small two-engine boat near the port town of Bossaso in northern Somalia on Friday evening. On average it takes three days for boats to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

With the latest deaths, 89 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the perilous waters been Somalia and Yemen this year. All Somalis reaching Yemen by unauthorized sea passage are regarded as refugees.