Seventeen people died and some 140 are missing after two smugglers’ boats carrying them across the Gulf of Aden from strife-torn Somalia capsized in the dark off the coast of Yemen, the latest victims of long series of deadly incidents claimed by the perilous crossing, the United Nations refugee reported today.
The tragedy occurred when the boats, carrying mainly Somalis and Ethiopians, tried to escape back to sea after a fire fight erupted as Yemeni coastguards intercepted two other boats that had already offloaded their human cargo.
The news came as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) announced that it was mobilizing staff and resources in preparation for a possible exodus of tens of thousands of people fleeing the recent upsurge of fighting in Somalia.
The four boats were smuggling 515 people late Wednesday when they were spotted approaching the coastline by Yemeni authorities. Two of them had reportedly offloaded their cargo when were then fired on by Yemeni security forces. According to Yemeni officials, the smugglers returned fire but were then captured.
The third and fourth boats, which had been waiting further offshore in the dark, tried to escape, but one capsized near Al-Baida, trapping several people beneath the overturned hull. The other, pursued by two coastguard boats and a helicopter, was forced back towards shore but capsized in heavy seas about 300 metres from the beach.
Yemeni authorities said today they captured all 17 smugglers and a search operation was still underway for survivors. In Geneva, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres voiced shock over the loss of life and called for action against those responsible.
“Despite efforts to halt this horrible trade, brutal smugglers continue prey on the desperation of poor people fleeing persecution and violence and those looking for better economic opportunities elsewhere,” he said. “We urgently need a concerted international effort aimed at addressing root causes, educating would-be migrants and cracking down on the smugglers and traffickers based in Somalia.”
In the past few months UNHCR has reported cases of migrants being savagely beaten to death and thrown overboard by club-wielding smugglers just for requesting water. At least 330 people have now died during the crossing, with more than 300 missing, this year, during which nearly 26,000 migrants have been recorded arriving on the coast of Yemen from Somalia.
More than 350 survivors from Wednesday’s incident were taken to UNHCR’s Mayfa'a reception centre to recover from their ordeal and were given food and medical assistance.
Many Somalis said they fled because of the current conflict between the Ethiopian-backed Somali Transition Federal Government and the Union of Islamic Courts.
Earlier this month, UNHCR expressed concern after Yemeni authorities fired on boats, killing two people.
There are currently more than 88,000 registered refugees in Yemen, of whom 84,000 are Somalis. Somalis reaching Yemen get automatic refugee status because many are fleeing conflict, though not all apply for it. Ethiopians are not automatically considered refugees, but can have their cases heard individually. Yemen has started to detain and deport an increasing number of non-Somalis.
Earlier this month, 126 Ethiopians were detained. Some have reportedly been deported back to Ethiopia, despite repeated UNHCR appeals for access to screen them.