Sixty eight African refugees die [Archives:2007/1108/Front Page]

December 3 2007

Amel Al-Ariqi
MUKALLA, Dec. 2 ) Sixty eight African refugees drowned on Thursday when their boat, carrying 127 passengers, overturned off the Yemeni coast, said an official at the UN refugee agency.

“It was around 9 p.m. when the vessel (carrying 92 Somalis and 35 Ethiopians) sank close to Mukalla beaches,” said UNHCR field specialist Aouad Baobid .

Only twenty six bodies were found washed ashore early Friday, while 42 refugees remain missing. “We buried 15 Somalis and 11 Ethiopians; we are still searching for 44 Somalis and 24 Ethiopians. We believe that they are dead,” explained Baobid, complaining that Yemeni authorities made the decision to bury the bodies very late. “We found the bodies early in the morning and received the decision at night. We tried to talk with the concerned authorities in the region to ease the burial process,” he added.

Most of the bodies were buried by locals in mass graves on the coast. However, in Hadramout authorities prevented coastal burials, asking locals and UNHCR officials to bury the refugees far from the beach.

The boat carried passengers who were between the ages of 8 and 50, and overturned when all the passengers went to one side of the boat. After the boat sank, the immigrants tried to swim to the nearby coast. “It was dark, and they were afraid, so instead of swimming toward the beach they swam further into the ocean, where they drowned about 200 kilometers from the beach,” stated Baobid.

Many immigrants attempt to cross from Somalia to Yemen, which they see as a gateway to other parts of the Middle East and the West because it is cheaper compared to other means of travel. A large number who attempt the journey are desperate to flee conflict and persecution in their home regions in Africa. “Recently all the refugees affirmed that they crossed the sea for the first time. They are fleeing bloody genocides,” said Baobid, who added that the UNHCR's center for receiving these immigrants recorded twenty four boats which set out from the Somali port of Bosasso in November. “This number is small compared to the seventy seven boats in October and sixty seven in September,” he went on to say.

Somalia was plunged into anarchy after the 1991 ousting of dictator Mohammed Siad Barre, and since then many Somali refugees have died trying to cross to Yemen looking for a better life.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 20,000 people have made the perilous crossing this year, with more than 439 deaths and another 489 people missing.

The crossing takes two days at best and is made especially dangerous due to shark-infested waters, strong currents and inhumane conditions on poorly maintained vessels that are open to the elements.