Refugee death toll tops 100 in drowning incident [Archives:2007/1027/Front Page]

February 22 2007

By: Amel Al-Ariqi
SANA'A, Feb. 21 – More than 100 migrants' bodies have been recovered so far and at least five people are still missing in the latest drowning accident that occurred last week, according to an official at the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees office in Yemen. “We're still looking for any survivors or bodies,” UNHCR field specialist Aouad Baobid affirmed.

The U.N. refugee agency in Yemen confirmed last Thursday that 107 bodies so far have been found along a remote stretch of Yemeni coastline after one of four boats approaching the coastline capsized far from shore on Monday, Feb. 12.

From witness accounts, the agency reported that the capsized smuggler's boat was carrying 120 Somali and Ethiopian refugees. After it overturned, a second smuggling vessel, also carrying 120, forced all of its passengers into the sea, picked up the smugglers from the capsized vessel and headed back into the Gulf of Aden, stranding the 240 refugees on the high seas.

Survivors said they were in the water for several hours before being rescued by the Yemeni military. A military official said rescue efforts were very difficult because victims were drifting at least half a kilometer off the coast. “From the two other smuggling boats that approached Yemen that Monday, a total of 235 people made it ashore safely,” UNHCR said.

According to UNHCR, the 107 bodies have been buried. “We're trying to identify the dead by photographing them and asking survivors to provide us more information on their identities. We record this information and then bury them on the beach according to Islamic rules,” Baobid noted.

Previously, only 30 were believed to have died; however, after obtaining more information from survivors, U.N. officials realized the death toll was far higher – and the circumstances more cruel.

Sadat Mohammed, an official at the Somali Community in Sana'a, suggested that the Yemeni Coast Guard is responsible for the recent increased number of deaths of migrants making the perilous journey across the sea, alleging that as a result of increased security measures and patrols along the Yemeni coast, smugglers are taking new and more hazardous sea routes to Yemen.

“Some survivors said they saw a Yemeni military helicopter flying above them and then 13 military ships attempted to surround the smuggling boats, which forced the smugglers to get rid of the passengers by throwing them into the sea,” he recounted.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters at a Friday press briefing in Geneva that the Somalis said they had fled during and following the end of recent hostilities between government forces and the Islamic Courts Union. “Many said they were exposed to gunfire by militias and had their money and belongings stolen at checkpoints manned by the same militia,” however, he didn't define these militias.

Some refugees at Kharaz Camp, Lahj governorate, said they were searched at arrival points by some Yemeni security forces, who took their money and property. “Bad elements can be found in any organization. In these cases, we talk with the involved authorities to investigate those elements in an attempt to avoid such incidents in the future,” Baobid commented.

In recent months, UNHCR has reported cases of migrants being savagely beaten to death and thrown overboard by club-wielding smugglers simply for requesting drinking water. However, Monday's event was one the deadliest single incidents in an exodus that has brought more than 27,000 refugees across the Gulf of Aden in the past year, UNHCR says. Some 330 migrants have died on the crossing to Yemen and another 300 are still missing.

According to 2006 UNHCR statistics, there are 95,909 African refugees in Yemen, the vast majority of whom – more than 91,000 – are Somalis.

“Every year, thousands of people cross the Gulf of Aden, the Mediterranean and other waters, fleeing persecution in their own countries or searching for better economic opportunities. UNHCR consistently has tried to promote international and local action to combat vicious smuggling practices and focus more attention on conditions in the countries of origin, which lead people to leave in the first place. Despite these efforts, the number of people leaving their homes hasn't decreased,” Redmond concluded.