More than 22,000 people have risked their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden in rickety smugglers’ boats from Somalia to Yemen this year, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
“At least 355 died making the perilous voyage and more than 150 are missing,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Ron Redmond told a news briefing in Geneva, noting that nearly 1,500 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived in 12 smugglers’ boats over the past eight days alone.
At least 18 people aboard those boats died and 17 are missing, he added. The boats usually land along a remote, 300-kilometre stretch of tribal-ruled coastline. UNHCR, which has only limited access to the often insecure coast, was able over the past eight days to transport 853 Somalis and Ethiopians to its May'fa reception centre, providing them with food, water, medical care and other assistance, Mr. Redmond said.
Most new arrivals said they were from southern and central Somalia, where they claimed their freedom has been significantly curtailed since the region came under the control earlier this year of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which has taken over the capital and large swaths of the strife-torn country. They also cited an increase in inter-tribal and inter-clan conflict and said they feared for their lives.
They reported that the ICU had ruled that men must be the sole family breadwinners and that women were expected to stay at home.
UNHCR has repeatedly warned of atrocities committed by the people smugglers, last month reporting the case of five Ethiopians who were beaten by the smugglers, thrown overboard and attacked by sharks in view of the others on the vessel.
It has called for international action and donor support to tackle the root causes of the smuggling, including protection for victims and prosecution of smugglers. The migrants are mostly men who cite insecurity, drought and economic hardship for leaving.
In Somalia, meanwhile, more than 100 Ethiopian illegal migrants were expected to be flown back home today from Bosaso, a bustling north-eastern port city in the semi-autonomous State of Puntland, after they agreed during screening interviews with UNHCR to return. They were among over 2,000 Ethiopians detained last month by authorities in a crackdown on human smuggling.
Some 1,300 were forcibly deported last month before UNHCR and other UN agencies intervened. Last week, UNHCR and the Puntland authorities signed an agreement that outlines measures to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. Bosaso still has an estimated 22,000 internally displaced people from throughout Somalia and up to 5,000 mainly Ethiopian migrants, according to estimates by authorities.