Global perspective Human stories

UN agency fears resumption of deadly exodus from Africa across Gulf of Aden

UN agency fears resumption of deadly exodus from Africa across Gulf of Aden

Ethiopian refugees
Thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis have already gathered in a northern Somalia port preparing to brave the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen when good weather returns, prompting fears among United Nations refugee officials that the new people-smuggling season will be as bad as the last, when nearly 400 died.

The bad weather that kept smugglers’ boats ashore in July and August is coming to an end and the people traffic is expected to begin in earnest in the next few days. Some 3,000 Ethiopians have poured into the dusty port of Bossaso, joining Somalis already there preparing for the exodus.

“With insecurity on the rise in Mogadishu [the Somali capital] and tensions increasing in the Ethiopian Ogaden [region in neighbouring Somalia], many more people might arrive in Bossaso,” UNHCR Somalia representative Guillermo Bettocchi said during a recent visit to the port.

“Some humanitarian workers even report having seen a few Kenyans, Eritreans, Ugandans and Tanzanians in Bossaso, which means the town might become a hub for East Africans wishing to cross towards the Gulf countries,” he warned, calling the mixed migration of Ethiopians and Somalis a “deep human tragedy.”

Those who risk the journey face the hazards of rough seas, brutal smugglers who sometimes murder the migrants and throw their bodies overboard or steal their meagre belongings, and the possible capsizing of their flimsy vessels in attempts to flee Yemeni coastguard patrols.

In February at least 107 bodies were found along a remote stretch of the Yemen coastline after a people-smuggling boat capsized in one of the deadliest single incidents of the exodus route that brought over some 30,000 people since January 2006.

A month later, at least 28 people died from asphyxiation, beating or drowning and many were badly injured by the smugglers who boat threw dozens of Somalis into the water while forcing hundreds of others to disembark, many with their hands bound by ropes, closer to the shore.

Mr. Bettochi was in Bossaso to help launch a multi-agency action plan aimed at saving lives, providing basic services to vulnerable migrants and identifying those who have protection needs, including asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors and victims of human trafficking.

An advocacy campaign is also being launched here to warn people about the risks of crossing the Gulf of Aden and to stress that migrants have rights and should not be deported or returned to other areas of Somalia indiscriminately. It will also explain asylum procedures and who is eligible to pursue them.

“I reckon that about 10 per cent of the Ethiopians in Bossaso fled their country for refugee-related reasons,” Mr. Bettocchi said. “The advocacy campaign will make sure they know that they don’t need to cross the sea because they can claim asylum in Somalia and receive assistance from UNHCR in Puntland [northern Somalia] once they have been recognized as refugees.”

Somalis account for half of the migrant flow and most have fled conflict in southern and central parts of the country, including Mogadishu. There are nearly 90,000 registered refugees in Yemen, almost all of them