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Yemen: Dramatic increase in people-smuggling from Somalia

Briefing notes

Yemen: Dramatic increase in people-smuggling from Somalia

13 February 2007

Once again the Gulf of Aden has claimed the lives of at least 30 Somalis and Ethiopians when the boat smuggling them from Somalia to Yemen capsized on approach to the Yemeni coast on Monday. We currently have sketchy, unconfirmed reports that up to 78 may have died. The dead are being buried near the beach. Three other boats with some 120 people aboard dropped their passengers offshore and left. All passengers on those three boats apparently made it to shore.

In less than a month, we have seen a dramatic increase in people smuggling from Somalia, with over 1,600 arrivals in Yemen aboard some 20 boats. At least 30 people died making earlier voyages since mid-January. The smugglers have changed tactics and are now arriving at different points along the Yemeni coast. This makes it harder for Yemeni coastal patrols to catch them and for UNHCR and its partners to register and provide assistance to new arrivals. Despite the increase in price for the journey - from $40 to $100 - hundreds of desperate people continue taking the risk.

January had been slow - with no reported arrivals in the first two weeks - due to a crackdown on smugglers in Somalia, recent fighting in Somalia, and stepped-up patrols along the Yemeni coast.

Last week alone, at least nine smuggling boats arrived at six points along the Yemeni coast. Many of the new arrivals were badly beaten and told UNHCR that the smugglers stole their money during the voyage. The Somalis said they fled their homes during and following the end of hostilities between government forces and the Islamic Courts Union. Many said they were exposed to shooting by the armed militias and had their money and belongings taken at checkpoints manned by the same militia.

In 2006, UNHCR Yemen reported that some 27,000 people made the perilous voyage, with 330 deaths and another 300 still missing.

Every year, thousands of desperate people cross the Gulf of Aden, the Mediterranean and other waters. UNHCR has consistently tried to promote international and local action to combat the vicious smuggling practices and to focus more attention on conditions in the countries of origin that lead people to leave in the first place. Despite these efforts, the number of people leaving their homes and taking enormous risks has not decreased.