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Yemen: More deaths in Gulf of Aden

Briefing notes

Yemen: More deaths in Gulf of Aden

20 January 2006

Once again, people are dying trying to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats crossing the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. The latest tragic deaths underscore the urgency of UNHCR's earlier appeal for action to stem the flow of desperate people who fall prey to smugglers in their flight from Somalia and Ethiopia.

UNHCR staff in Yemen said a boat reached shore on 16 January carrying 65 people and six dead bodies. Another 14 people reportedly died during the voyage - six who threw themselves into the sea because they could not bear the thirst, and a further eight who died on board of thirst and hunger and whose bodies were thrown overboard. Of the 20 people reported dead, four were Ethiopians and 16 Somalis.

The boat left port near Bossaso in the Puntland region of Somalia with little food or water, allegedly to maximise space for its human cargo. After its engine failed, the boat drifted in the Gulf of Aden for six days, with passengers growing hungrier and more desperate by the hour. UNHCR staff in Yemen arranged medical assistance for survivors - some of whom had bite marks from crazed fellow passengers - and took 25 to the refugee agency's Mayfa'a Transit Centre.

That horrific voyage is not unusual. Smugglers frequently beat their passengers or force them overboard while still well away from shore. UNHCR has in the past thanked the crews of passing ships who have saved people found drifting helplessly in the shark-infested waters. In the period from 12-17 January, 22 boats carrying an unknown number of Somalis and Ethiopians arrived in Yemen. Of those, the UNHCR Transit Centre registered 1,217 Somalis and 39 Ethiopians.

The true numbers can only be guessed at. Thousands of Somalis arrive in Yemen every year, including an estimated average of 100 people per day during the annual September to March period of good sailing weather. Last September, UNHCR called for international action to stem the flow of desperate people across the Gulf of Aden after at least 150 people died in a three-week period.

UNHCR has been working with the authorities in Puntland, in north-eastern Somalia, on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes production of videos and radio programmes to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings.

Yemen, one of the few countries in the region to have signed the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, has been generous in receiving migrants and refugees. The Yemeni authorities automatically grant refugee status to Somali citizens arriving in Yemen (prima facie refugee status).

There are currently over 80,000 registered refugees in Yemen, some 75,000 of whom are Somalis. But it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands more in the country. Many who arrive by sea continue north from Yemen in search of a better life.