Rough seas halt Gulf of Aden crossings; half-year death toll estimated at above 350
GENEVA, July 10 (UNHCR) - Rough seas have put a temporary halt to illegal crossings of the Gulf of Aden, which by UNHCR estimate saw at least 367 desperate people lose their lives in the first six months of the year.
The sailing season for smuggling people across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen traditionally ends in late June and restarts in September, when the conditions are better. The thousands of people willing to make the risky voyage seek safety or a better life.
For the first six months of this year, UNHCR in Yemen recorded the arrival of 77 smuggling boats carrying more than 8,600 refugees, asylum seekers and migrants - mostly Somalis and Ethiopians.
During that period, at least 367 people died making the crossing, while 118 remain missing. That makes it much more deadly than last year. For the same six-month period in 2006, a total of 107 boats arrived with 11,723 people aboard. A total of 266 died and 66 were recorded as missing in the first half of last year.
Many of those who lost their lives - after paying about US$50 to make the perilous voyage - were forced by ruthless smugglers to disembark offshore while still in deep water and drowned trying to swim to shore. Others were beaten to death by club-wielding smugglers, or attacked by sharks after being thrown overboard. Many bodies were buried on Yemeni beaches by local fishermen.
"You can only imagine how desperate people must be to brave such a rough and risky journey to reach the other side. But this also goes to show how misled and exploited they are by the smugglers, and how much more has to be done to make sure they are better informed," said Radhouane Nouicer, director of UNHCR's Middle East and North Africa bureau.
And the refugee agency fears things will get worse when the sailing season resumes in September. "I expect that the situation after the temporary lull will continue to be bad, if not worse," said Adel Jasmin, UNHCR representative in Yemen. "I have little reason to believe that the number of arrivals will decrease after the summer," he added.
For all of 2006, nearly 29,000 people were recorded arriving in Yemen in 237 boats. At least 328 people died and 310 were recorded as missing for the year.
But while smuggling in the Gulf of Aden has come to a temporary halt, it is only just starting again in the Mediterranean. Despite a drop in irregular arrivals in Italy by 31 percent compared to the first six months of last year, the number of dead and missing - at least 200 in the Strait of Sicily in June alone - shows how dangerous it is to cross the Mediterranean.
UNHCR has repeatedly expressed its concerns about the situation in the Gulf of Aden, the Mediterranean and other waters, as some of those who risk their lives making such crossings are refugees and asylum seekers.
In late 2006, irregular travel to Yemen became increasingly difficult for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants alike as a result of increased crackdowns on smugglers in Somalia's Bossaso region and heightened security patrols along the Yemen coastline. Smugglers simply started taking new routes to Yemen. Various new drop-off points were identified along the 400-kilometre coastline, turning the voyage into a three-day ordeal rather than two.
The solution lies not only in cracking down on smugglers, but also on tackling the root causes of persecution, poverty and conflict that prompt irregular movers to leave their homes.
Moreover, countries need help in managing these mixed migration flows in a manner that would ensure protection for those who need it and a safe return for those who do not. Last but not least, anyone in distress at sea should be rescued, allowed to disembark and given access to proper screening procedures upon arrival.
Last week, UNHCR and the International Maritime Organization called for more action to prevent further loss of life. In 2006, UNHCR presented a Ten-Point Plan of Action on Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration that sets out a number of measures to assist states in dealing with the problem.
"We hope that the various actions presented in the ten-point plan, will help in making a difference and controlling better the mixed migration flows ... but actions will have to be taken both in the countries of origin, departure and arrival," said UNHCR's Jasmin.