Gulf of Aden claims more lives after smugglers force people off a boat at gunpoint
GENEVA, May 8 (UNHCR) - At least 39 people drowned in the Gulf of Aden over the weekend after they were forced to jump from their boat at gunpoint while crossing from Somalia to Yemen. They were part of a group of 349 people on three different smugglers boats making the hazardous crossing.
UNHCR, which is caring for 98 survivors, says 39 bodies were found near Belhaf in Al Ayn on the southern coast of Yemen. They were mainly Ethiopians although there were also some Somalis. UNHCR has no information on the whereabouts of the remaining people from the boats.
One of the survivors told UNHCR staff in Yemen on Sunday that three smuggling boats carrying some 349 Somalis and Ethiopians had set off from Somalia to Yemen. However, one of the boats developed mechanical problems, but assisted by the smugglers on the other two boats managed to cross the Gulf. Close to the Yemeni shore, the faster two boats rushed ahead in an attempt to avoid the coast guards, and quickly dropped their passengers off. The smugglers on the third boat, however, could not get close to shore. Not wanting to be left behind with a broken boat, they forced all the passengers overboard at gunpoint.
"The boat was still in deep sea when they were thrown overboard and only those who could swim managed to reach safety," said UNHCR field officer Mohammed Godboudin, in Yemen. "At least 39 people drowned. The bodies were picked up by our staff and buried in a traditional ceremony on the spot."
The 98 survivors are staying at UNHCR's Mayfa'a reception centre for two to three days, until they recuperate and feel ready to continue their journey. They are being provided with meals and medical assistance. The new arrivals also receive temporary registration forms to serve as ID documents to help them at police checkpoints.
Those with refugee status - Somalis are given prima-facie refugee status upon arrival in Yemen - can choose to stay in Kharaz refugee camp close to Aden, presently home to 8,525 Somalis and some 800 Ethiopians.
This weekend's tragedy is not an isolated incident and in the past months UNHCR has drawn attention to the urgent need for international efforts to address the problem of smuggling and minimise the number of innocent victims.
From September 2005 until April 2006, a total of 241 boats arrived from Somalia in Yemen - an average of 30 boats a month. Several hundreds of people died during these trips, although an exact figure is unavailable.
In summer, particularly between mid-June to September, the crossing becomes more dangerous with rougher seas and smuggling boats stop sailing.
Bossaso, the chief commercial port of Puntland - a self-declared autonomous area in north-east Somalia - is one of the world's busiest smuggling hubs. For at least three years, thousands of Somalis, and increasingly, Ethiopians, some of which are refugees, have set off in little open fishing boats hoping to reach Yemen. From there many want to move on to work illegally in Saudi Arabia or in the Gulf States.
UNHCR has been working closely with the authorities in Puntland to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. In January, the UN refugee agency also produced a video and radio programme to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians of the risks involved in such crossings. At the same time, it has called 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.
But, thousands of Somalis, many fleeing violence in their homeland and others from Eritrea, Ethiopia and even as far away as Sri Lanka, continue to arrive in Yemen every year. On average an estimated 100 people a day arrive after making the hazardous journey between September and March.
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.