Migration season across Gulf of Aden off to a deadly start, UN agency reports

The body of a man who attempted to cross the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa is washed onto a Yemeni beach

17 September 2010 – The United Nations refugee agency reported today that one person has been killed and others have drowned crossing the Gulf of Aden to start new lives in Yemen, indicating that mixed migration across the body of water has kicked off a new season.

According to people who arrived in Yemen on Wednesday, an Ethiopian man was beaten to death and thrown overboard by smugglers operating a boat carrying 105 African migrants and refugees, mostly from Ethiopia.

“The victim had been sitting below deck in stifling conditions and was beaten and locked in the engine room after begging for water,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told reporters today in Geneva.

It took 50 hours for the vessel he was on to sail from Shimbrale, a village in northern Somalia, to Yemen.

Two Somali women – one of them five months pregnant – reportedly drowned off Yemen’s coast on Monday, as smugglers forced passengers to disembark far from the shore in rough waters. Another person is missing and presumed dead.

There are said to have been 55 passengers on the boat, which departed Somalia on 11 September for its 41-hour journey to Bir Ali, some 500 kilometres east of Yemen’s capital, Aden.

According to the survivors, the smugglers approached Bir Ali’s shore, but turned away, fearing capture by Yemeni authorities. The passengers were made to get off the boat in deep waters in pitch darkness.

In both instances, UNHCR’s local partner Society for Humanitarian Solidarity provided the exhausted new arrivals with high-energy biscuits and water before transporting them to a reception centre to be registered, receive medical care and rest.

The agency said that it is following another separate dramatic story unfolding on Yemen’s Red Sea coast, where in recent months, UNHCR and its partners have noted increasing mortality among newly-arrived Ethiopians.

Since June, more than 40 corpses have been found along the shore, while a growing number of Ethiopians have been found to be suffering from violent diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration. Nearly 50 cases have been treated at one clinic in a refugee camp alone.

“These Ethiopians began their sea voyage in Obock in Djibouti and have told our staff that people die in Obock daily, suffering severe diarrhoea,” Mr. Mahecic said.

The new arrivals said that they are exhausted after walking for two days to Obock, where they are held by Somali and Djiboutian smugglers for days or even weeks with no access to food and safe water. Eight out of 10 wells in Obock are said to be contaminated, and hunger, dehydration, salty water and severe diarrhoea appear to be the main causes of death.

UNHCR has set up mechanisms for referral, identification and burial of the bodies found on beaches. The Yemeni Red Crescent, in coordination with local authorities, identifies the bodies and issues medical reports to confirm the cause of death.

So far this year, more than 32,000 African migrants and refugees have made the perilous journey to Yemen from the Horn of Africa aboard nearly 700 boats, fleeing conflict, instability, drought and poverty. Some 50 people have lost their lives trying in a bid to begin fresh lives in Yemen.

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