Refugee smuggling boats capsize on their way to Yemen [Archives:2009/1227/Front Page]

January 22 2009

By: Khaled Al-Hilaly
ADEN, Jan. 22 ) At least 15 refugees have drowned and a dozen are still missing after two smugglers' boats carrying about 270 Somalis and Ethiopians from the Horn of Africa capsized earlier this week in the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, said the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

A boat carrying about 120 persons overturned on Sunday near Ahwar in the South of Yemen. The survivors reported that the boat departed from the Somalia on Wednesday.

Yemeni security authorities said that about 80 of the journey's survivors were Ethiopians and 16 of them were Somalis.

Because the boat was overloaded, the smugglers tried to push passengers overboard into deep water off the coast of Yemen, resulting in the boat capsizing. Some 99 persons made it to the beach and were taken to UNHCR's reception centre in Ahwar. Authorities recovered nine bodies who were then buried by a local non-governmental organisation. The other 12 who were reportedly swimming with family members remain missing at sea, the UNHCR said.

“MSF workers treated 91 people who arrived on the beach of Doma, near Arqah, on January 17. A one-year-old boy lost his mother who drowned. They were coming from the Oromo region of Ethiopia to northern Somalia in search of a better life in Yemen. The boy was treated in the MSF clinic in Ahwar and is now with a relative that was also on the boat”, said Medecins Sans Fronti'res (MSF) field coordinator in Ahwar Andreas Koutepas.

Passengers of another boat, mostly non-Somalis, reported to the UNHCR that their boat lost its way floating for three days before reaching the Red Sea side of Yemen's coastline on Friday. They had come from the town of Obock in Djibouti. They said that the boat's engine broke because it was in poor condition and that water started to flood the vessel, eventually overturning it in deep water close to the shore.

Thirty-two passengers made it to shore near Dhubab, around 200 kilometres west of Aden where they were received by UNHCR's local partner who provided them with first aid, food and water. Six bodies have been recovered and the status of the remaining 112 passengers is unknown. Survivors said that many of them have made it to shore and disappeared, according to the UNHCR.

The 117 Brigade stationed in the Gulf of Aden reported to have rescued 297 people from the smuggling boat from Djibouti that sank near Bab Al-Mandab.

Three people drowned, and their bodies have been recovered and buried. The passengers have been handed over to the Red Cross which will take them to Taiz where they will wait prior to being deported to Ethiopia, according to Ministry of the Interior who said the passengers were all Ethiopians.

Since the beginning of January 2009, MSF teams in southern Yemen have treated over 1,090 people who have arrived by boat. Survivors are provided with immediate medical assistance on the beach and are given dry clothes, water, and nutrient-fortified foods.

They are then transported to a United Nations reception centre in the town of Ahwar, where MSF operates a medical clinic and also provides counseling services, Koutepas said.

“MSF began its project in southern Yemen in September 2007. Since then, MSF has provide medical and psychosocial assistance to more than 14550 refugees,” he added.

In 2008 more than 50,000 people made the risky voyage in smugglers' boats across the Gulf of Aden, at least 590 drowned and another 359 were reported missing. Most of the deaths were due to drowning after passengers were forced overboard in treacherous waters far off the Yemen coast in a bid by the smugglers to avoid detection by Yemen authorities, according to the UNHCR.

About 1,285 African refugees reached Yemeni coasts since the beginning of the year 2009. The refugees registered in UNHCR are 807 and 682 of them are Somalis, the UNHCR added.

Boat loads of refugees regularly arrive on Yemen's southern shores having crossed the dangerous waters separating the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. Somalis fleeing war and political instability at home usually form the majority of these refugees, but some Ethiopians also head to Yemen fleeing persecution and violence in some areas of their country.

“A lot of attention has been paid lately to tackling the issue of piracy in the waters off the Horn of Africa,” said MSF Head of Mission in Yemen, Francis Coteur. “Unfortunately, little attention is paid to the drama of the refugees crossing the same waters in horrific conditions. Much more needs to be done to address this issue.”