Gulf of Aden crossing claims up to 66 lives
ADEN, Yemen, October 23 (UNHCR) - The dangerous Gulf of Aden crossing claimed more lives at the weekend when up to 66 people drowned after being forced overboard by smugglers off the coast of Yemen.
The tragedy involved two smugglers' boats that left the Somali coastal town of Bossaso on Saturday with 244 people aboard, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians. The two vessels reached the Yemeni coast off Hawrat Al Shatee on Sunday, survivors said, adding that passengers were forced into deep water and many drowned. A total of 28 bodies were buried on the beach, while 38 (29 Ethiopians and nine Somalis) remain missing.
So far this year, more than 20,000 people have made the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden in boats operated by ruthless smugglers operating from Somali ports. At least 439 people have died this year and another 489 are missing and feared dead.
Survivors of the weekend tragedy said the crew of one of the crowded boats had harshly beaten passengers during the voyage, injuring several of them. After being forced into deep water off the Yemeni coast, a total of 178 people managed to make it to shore.
Some reported being robbed by Yemeni military personnel. Aid workers arriving on the scene provided food and water before transferring the group to UNHCR's Mayfaa reception centre.
"While most of the arrivals in Yemen are Somalis and Ethiopians, we have recently received reports that Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians are also waiting in Somalia to make the voyage," UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said in Geneva on Tuesday.
In 2006, some 26,000 people arrived in Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden. Yemen has worked closely with UNHCR and provides prima facie refugee recognition to Somalis. But the numbers show no sign of slowing, despite efforts on the both sides of the Gulf of Aden to warn people of the dangers involved in dealing with smugglers.
Over the past year, UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a US$7 million operation that includes additional staff, increased field presence, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp near Aden, and training programmes for the coastguard and other officials.
In addition, the UN refugee agency is planning to expand its presence along the remote, 300-kilometre-long coastline with the opening of two additional field offices in 2008. UNHCR is also working closely with NGOs such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has established mobile clinics that can work at arrival points along the coast.
UNHCR and other partners have set up information projects on the Somali side to warn people about the dangers. But many of those fleeing say conditions in their homeland are so bad that they have nothing left to lose and are willing to take the risk.