UN refugee agency appalled at continued drownings off Yemen

6 September 2005
Somali Refugees

The United Nations refugee agency said today that it was "appalled" that yet another group of at least 45 Somalis and Ethiopians died last week at sea while crossing the Gulf of Aden in an attempt to reach Yemen aboard smugglers' boats from Somalia.

“People are drowning not because they have been denied access to protection or to the territory of Yemen, or because they fear interception at sea, but because they are desperate and at the mercy of ruthless smugglers,” Ron Redmond, spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said in Geneva.

“Nor is there any authority in Bossasso trying to dissuade them from making the perilous journey in the first place,” he added.

In this latest incident, Mr. Redmond said that four boats carrying up to 400 Africans that had sailed from Bossasso, in north-eastern Somalia. Off the Yemeni coast, survivors said they were told to jump into the sea and swim to the shore. Forty-five bodies have so far been recovered along the Yemeni coast.

Some 50 people made it to shore and were taken to UNHCR's reception centre in Mayfaah, where they have received shelter and food and are awaiting further transport on to the Al Kharaz camp near Aden. The remaining people have not been found, but many could well have arrived at different parts of the Yemeni coast and have decided not to seek help.

Every year, thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians fleeing poverty and in Somalia's case, insecurity, including desperate refugees trying to escape persecution and violence, fall prey to unscrupulous traffickers in the hope of reaching Yemen, from where many seek to make their way into Europe.

On 3 March of this year, some 90 people, including women and children, died when a vessel carrying 93 passengers – one of six that had sailed from Bossasso – sank in the Gulf of Aden after developing a technical problem. A few days later, on 7 March, another 85 people were ordered to jump overboard while still far from the coast, and 18 drowned. Over 100 people were feared lost when a smugglers' boat sank in the Gulf of Aden in March 2004, and at least 21 others perished in a similar incident in September 2003.

People arriving in Yemen tell harrowing stories of journeys of 48 hours in small motorised canoes on rough, shark-infested seas.

“This latest incident marks the start of calmer weather in the Gulf of Aden and we fear we could see more tragedies in the coming months,” Mr. Redmond said. “Most of the migrants normally start coming to Yemen between mid-September and March, when the sea is at its calmest.”

UNHCR has praised Yemen as an exception amongst the Gulf countries in having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. “[The country] has been extremely generous in receiving migrants and refugees,” Mr Redmond added. There are some 47,000 Somalis registered with UNHCR in Yemen, although the authorities estimate that hundreds of thousands more are on their territory.


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