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Yemen-bound refugees survive to tell of nightmare at sea

Yemen-bound refugees survive to tell of nightmare at sea

Sailing from Somalia to Yemen, a boatload of Somali and Ethiopian refugees were forced to jump into the sea at gunpoint by their captain and crew. Eighteen survived, but at least 12 are feared to have drowned.
26 August 2003

ADEN, Yemen, August 26 (UNHCR) - Eighteen Somali and Ethiopian refugees are currently being treated in southern Yemen after they were forced to jump off a boat into the Gulf of Aden. At least 12 others are believed to have drowned in the incident, which UNHCR has called "an act of barbarity at sea".

According to the 18 survivors, they had set sail last week from Marer, a village near Bossaso in north-eastern Somalia, on a boat bound for Yemen with more than 80 people on board. Before they reached their destination, the boat's captain and crew beat them and forced them at gunpoint to jump into the sea. At least 30 people obeyed, though many reportedly could not swim.

Those who survived were found on the beach at the Mayfa'a Hajer coast in Hadhramout governorate, southern Yemen, last Tuesday. They were taken to the UN refugee agency's reception centre at Mayfa'a before being moved to Aden.

The plight of the 50 others who refused to jump ship remains unknown. They could have been taken back to Somalia or forced into the sea elsewhere along Yemen's coast.

The survivors told UNHCR that there are more than 1,500 people, many of them Ethiopians, waiting in north-eastern Somalia for boats to take them to Yemen.

Since the fall of Somalia's central government in 1991, thousands of asylum seekers and migrants have sought to leave the country every year for a better life in Yemen, which grants prima facie refugee status to all Somali refugees. Along the way, these desperate people often fall prey to unscrupulous boat captains who force them into the sea while still far offshore, so as to evade Yemeni coast guards.

Other boats set sail without adequate equipment and supplies of food, water and fuel. In February this year, a Somali boat carrying some 130 people sank near the Mayfa'a coast; leaving only 84 confirmed survivors. Just a few weeks before, more than 80 people had died when their boat's engine exploded, forcing the passengers to jump into the sea to escape the fire.

The Yemeni government estimates that up to 10,000 Somalis arrive every year. Most of them live in urban areas, where they are self-supporting. Some 10,000 are being cared for in UNHCR's Al Kharaz camp near Aden.

Yemen hosts the Arab world's largest population of non-Palestinian refugees. UNHCR estimates that there are more than 70,000 refugees in the country, but government figures put it at more than 165,000 refugees. The Somalis make up the majority - numbering some 64,000 - but there are 11 other nationalities among the refugee population.