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Deadly sea exodus from Somalia to Yemen gains momentum, UN reports

Deadly sea exodus from Somalia to Yemen gains momentum, UN reports

The deadly drama involving people-smuggling across the Gulf of Aden continues apace, with at least 89 confirmed deaths and 154 missing and presumed dead so far this month as traffickers reportedly stabbed passengers, beat them with iron bars and plastic tubes and threw some overboard, the United Nations refugee agency said today.

Between 1 and 26 September, 50 smuggling boats, nearly two a day, arrived on Yemeni shores from Somalia with 4,741 people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians fleeing conflict and drought – an increase of 70 per cent over last year when 30 boats arrived with 2,961 people for the whole of the month, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis told a news briefing in Geneva.

UNHCR is strengthening its operations to deal with the crisis with plans to open a second reception centre along the Yemeni coast to provide medical care and other support.

Several new arrivals reported that Yemeni armed forces opened fire when they spotted the boats, shooting a 70-year-old Somali man in the heart and killing him, she said.

Since the beginning of the year, 13,897 people have arrived in Yemen after making the perilous voyage across the gulf, while at least 356 have died and 272 remain missing and are presumed dead. The exodus eased off in the summer due to rough seas but resumed again at the beginning of September.

Five boats arrived on Wednesday alone with 600 migrants. Four Ethiopians died in the hold of one of the boats due to asphyxiation, while 18 people were thrown overboard while still at sea, passengers said.

“Survivors told us that they had been violently treated by the smugglers, who beat them with iron bars, belts and plastic tubes and stabbed them with daggers,” Ms. Pagonis said.

Two boats arrived last Sunday with 98 Somalis and 135 Ethiopians, she added. Two Somalis died during the voyage in the hold of one boat from asphyxiation and two drowned while trying to reach shore from deep water.

UNHCR is discussing the shooting incidents with Yemeni authorities, who have expressed their concern that some smugglers arrive with weapons and drugs, and later this month will provide training to Yemeni coast guards and immigration officials on refugee law, humanitarian law and rescue at sea.

The second reception and registration centre UNHCR is planning along the Yemeni coast will include a health post run by the non-governmental organization Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF) and more staff and vehicles from the agency and its partners to speed up support for new arrivals. MSF has also set up three out of four planned health posts along the coast and UNHCR also intends to have two registration centres in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, and Aden.

The agency at present has 61 staff in Yemen and plans to bring in reinforcements in the months to come.

Somalis registered at the UNHCR’s reception centre say they left due to conflict, arbitrary killings, threat of detention, drought and lack of work. Somalis account for half the migrant flow and most have fled conflict in southern and central parts of the country, including Mogadishu, the capital. There are nearly 90,000 registered refugees in Yemen, almost all of them Somalis.