Gulf of Aden crossing claims up to 66 lives [Archives:2007/1097/Local News]

October 25 2007

ADEN, Oct. 23 – Up to 66 people drowned Sunday in the Gulf of Aden after smugglers forced them overboard off the coast of Yemen, the U.N. refugee agency said Tuesday.

“The tragedy involved two smuggling 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,” UNHCR spokesperson Ron Redmon said.

He quoted survivors as saying, “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.

While most arriving to Yemen are Somalis and Ethiopians, recent reports are that Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians also are waiting in Somalia to make the voyage.

“Survivors of the weekend tragedy said the crew of one of the crowded boats had beaten passengers harshly during the voyage, injuring several. After being forced into deep water off the Yemeni coast, a total of 178 people managed to make it to shore,” Redmon added.

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 center.

African refugees registered at UNHCR's reception center declared that they left their country due to conflict, arbitrary killings, threat of detention, drought and lack of work. Many others said they left their home country to join relatives and family members in either Yemen or Saudi Arabia, citing worsening security in their homeland.

So far this year, more than 20,000 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.

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. Nevertheless, the numbers show no sign of slowing, despite efforts on both sides of the gulf 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 $7 million operation that includes additional staff, increased field presence, more assistance, providing additional shelter for refugees at Kharaz refugee camp near Aden and training programs for coast guards and other officials.

Additionally, the U.N. refugee agency is planning to expand its presence along the remote 300-kilometer-long coastline by opening two additional field offices in 2008.

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.