More than 130 migrants from Somalia, many fleeing violence in their homeland, died over the weekend when their boats capsized off Yemen as weather and the brutality of people-smugglers continued to exact a grievous toll, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.
In the first instance, smugglers ordered their 135 passengers to jump overboard, fearing capture by the Yemeni Coast Guard when they saw lights ashore. Those who resisted were beaten with sticks and stabbed. A large wave then capsized the boat, drowning 114 passengers and two smugglers, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesman William Spindler told a news briefing in Geneva.
The following day, 10 women and six children, part of a group of 29 Somalis aboard a two-engine smuggling boat, died when strong winds capsized the vessel just off the coast. They had left Somalia four days earlier and encountered engine problems. The 13 male survivors said four children had died under their parents’ eyes from lack of food, water and exposure, while the other two drowned.
Overall, 157 people have been reported dead or missing during the first 19 days of 2008 in the perilous trip across the Gulf of Aden, which last year claimed over 1,400 people dead or missing. So far this year, 2,452 boat people have landed in Yemen, most of them from Somalia, compared with over 29,500 for the whole of 2007.
“UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters,” Mr. Spindler said, noting that over the past year the agency had stepped up its work in Yemen under a $7 million operation that includes additional staff, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees and training programmes for the coast guard and other officials.
In recent weeks, two smuggling boats have been intercepted by the Yemeni Coast Guard. Patrols and crack-downs have increased in an attempt to deter the smugglers and save lives. Some boats used by the smugglers had been given to Somali fishermen by international aid agencies after the tsunami disaster in 2005.
The new arrivals said they paid $150 for their trip to Yemen. They stated they had left Somalia due to violence in the Mogadishu region, the continuing hostilities between government forces and insurgents. The survivors said an increasing number of civilians are being killed by heavy artillery.
UNHCR is expanding its presence along the remote, 300-kilometre Yemeni coastline with the opening of two additional field offices in early 2008. It is also working closely with non-governmental organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), which has mobile clinics that can work at arrival points along the coast.
On the Somali side, UNHCR and other partners have set up information projects to warn people of the dangers.
“We have also increased our presence and are providing assistance and the possibility to seek asylum on the Somali side of the Gulf of Aden,” Mr. Spindler said. “But many of those fleeing say conditions in their homeland are so bad that they are willing to take the risk.”