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22 dead, 28 reported missing as smugglers' boat capsizes off Yemen

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22 dead, 28 reported missing as smugglers' boat capsizes off Yemen

22 January 2006

Aden, Yemen, Sunday 22 January 2006

A smugglers' boat carrying some 120 Ethiopians and Somalis capsized off the coast of Yemen, leaving at least 22 people dead and 28 others missing, according to survivors, Yemeni authorities and the UN refugee agency. It was the second such mishap in the Gulf of Aden in a week.

Reports from UNHCR staff and humanitarian partners said the vessel capsized about 3 p.m. local time Saturday (Jan. 21) off the Yemeni coast between Bir Ali and Mayfa'a Hajar. According to survivors, the boat had sailed from the north-eastern Somalia village of Shimbirale, near the town of Bossaso, carrying approximately 110 Ethiopians, 10 Somalis and five crew. Bossaso is a major port of departure for smugglers crossing the Gulf of Aden.

Authorities on Saturday recovered 22 bodies (13 females and nine males), and survivors reported that another 28 people were missing. Three Somalis aboard were taken by UNHCR to the Mayfa'a Reception Centre. Yemen is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and automatically grants refugee status to citizens of strife-torn Somalia who arrive on its territory.

Yemeni authorities detained 43 Ethiopians - who do not get automatic refugee status - from the vessel. But survivors said another 22 Ethiopians had managed to escape. Two of the boat's crew members were arrested by police, while three escaped.

UNHCR has requested Yemeni authorities to grant it access to those detained so it can screen them to see if they are in need of international protection.

Sunday evening, UNHCR received sketchy reports of the arrival of yet another group of desperate boat people who said they had been forced overboard off the coast of Yemen. Initial reports indicated more casualties were likely. Yemeni authorities and UNHCR staff were still looking into this separate incident.

Thousands of Somalis, Ethiopians and others arrive in Yemen every year after making the perilous voyage in smugglers' boats across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. On January 16, a boat carrying 65 people reached Yemen after drifting for six days in the gulf with little food or water. Survivors said 20 people died - 16 Somalis and four Ethiopians. Smugglers frequently beat their passengers or force them overboard while still far from shore.

Last September, UNHCR called for international action to stem the flow of people falling prey to smugglers after at least 150 boat people died in a three-week period. The refugee agency has been working with local authorities in north-eastern Somalia's Puntland region on ways to inform people about the dangers of using smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. This includes the production of videos and radio broadcasts to raise awareness among Somalis and Ethiopians. But the traffic continues. Between January 12-17, at least 22 boats carrying an undetermined number of people landed on the Yemen coast. During that week, the UNHCR Reception Centre at Mayfa'a registered 1,217 Somalis and 39 Ethiopians.

There are currently more than 80,000 registered refugees in Yemen, including 75,000 Somalis. But it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands more in the country. Many of those arriving by sea continue north from Yemen in search of a better life elsewhere.