Over 50 Somali refugees dead or missing in Gulf of Aden boat tragedy, UN reports

24 February 2011

Over 50 Somali refugees, including women and children, apparently drowned when their boat capsized in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday, the highest toll in more than three years in the perilous exodus of thousands fleeing fighting in their homeland, the United Nations reported today.

“We are horrified by this latest tragedy that adds to the terrible suffering of the Somali people,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said. “The Gulf of Aden remains one of the deadliest routes for those fleeing the fatal mix of conflict, violence and human rights abuses in the Horn of Africa.”

Fifty-seven Somalis – 54 refugees, including six children, and three smugglers – were aboard the boat when it capsized off the coast of Yemen. As of late yesterday, 23 bodies had been recovered by the Yemeni navy. Only one person is known to have survived, a 42-year-old man who swam for almost a day before reaching the Yemeni coast near the port of Bir Ali, some 400 kilometres east of Aden.

“Based on what we know so far this is the largest loss of life in the seas between Somalia and Yemen in a single incident since January 2008,” the UN refugee agency, known by its acronym as UNHCR, said in a news release. On that occasion, smugglers forced 135 people into the water from a boat, causing it to capsize; 114 people drowned.

The survivor, who had fled fighting in Mogadishu with his wife and three children, said the boat began taking on water after being struck repeatedly by strong waves. Eventually it capsized. Just nine men, including the three smugglers, were left alive at this stage, clinging to small plastic tanks. The survivor did not know what happened to these people.

The man was eventually helped by UNHCR’s local partner, the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity. He told UNHCR that his family and other passengers had boarded a small two-engine boat near the port town of Bossaso in northern Somalia on Friday evening. On average it takes three days for boats to cross to Yemen.

With the latest deaths, 89 people are known to have drowned or gone missing in the perilous waters been Somalia and Yemen this year. All Somalis reaching Yemen by unauthorized sea passage are regarded as refugees.

There are more than 170,000 registered Somali refugees in Yemen, of whom some 16,000 arrived last year alone. The refugees frequently fall victim to vicious smuggler who brutalize them after taking extortionate fees for the passage.

UNHCR has consistently tried to promote international and local action to combat the vicious smuggling practices and to focus more attention on conditions in the countries of origin that lead people to leave in the first place. Despite these efforts, the number of people leaving their homes and taking enormous risks has not decreased.


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