Deadly crossing kills thousands of refugees

On a beach in Bosaso, north-east Somalia, near the tip of the Horn of Africa, dozens of Somali and Ethiopian refugees perch on rocks or squat in the sand, peering across the Gulf of Aden to the promised land.

They are waiting for boats to carry them to Yemen and away from a life of miserable poverty, persecution and a war in Somalia that is threatening to spiral even further out of control.

Yet none of the desperate refugees, who cram into boats run by unscrupulous smugglers, can be sure that they are going to survive the journey.

According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), 29 500 successfully navigated the crossing in 2007. But 1 400 did not make it.

“Sometimes the smugglers throw people overboard if [the boat] threatens to capsize; the boats can actually capsize and some die of asphyxiation in the hold of the boat,” Catherine Weibel from UNHCR’s Somalia office said.

“Often they die when arriving in Yemen. The coast guards are very active, so the smugglers force people to get out of boat at night when they are still far from coast,” she continued.
“People often don’t know which way the coast is or can’t swim.”

And yet the migration is only increasing. The refugee agency says that in the first four months of this year alone, prior to the main crossing season, over 15 000 people attempted to reach Yemen. Almost 500 of them disappeared without trace.

But many of those who undertake the hazardous crossing are leaving behind a life that is just as dangerous.

Somalia has been in a state of anarchy since the ouster of dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Constant inter-clan clashes have left thousands dead and about one million displaced.

The situation worsened early last year after transitional government troops, backed by Ethiopian forces, drove out the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC), which had controlled Mogadishu for six months.

An insurgency followed, with the UIC’s militant wing, al-Shabaab, launching regular attacks on government and Ethiopian troops and African Union peacekeepers.

This Monday alone, over a dozen civilians were killed in the crossfire of a battle as shells, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapon fire raked their homes in south Mogadishu.

Hoda, a young mother, fled Mogadishu one year ago with her family after they were told that they could get to Yemen and on to Saudi Arabia to find work.

However, once they reached Bosaso, they could only afford one seat on the smugglers’ boat. Her husband went first, intending to find work and send back money. She never heard from him again.

“That was seven months ago,” Hoda said. “I believe him to be dead—he must have drowned during the crossing or he would have contacted me.”

“I can neither go back to Mogadishu with my children, as it is too dangerous there, nor stay in Bosaso where there is only poverty for us. I am desperate. I plan to cross to Yemen and make money there or in Saudi Arabia,” she continued.

But it isn’t just Somalis who are fleeing. Many Ethiopians flock to Bosaso, keen to escape a life of crushing poverty.

Even those who make it are not guaranteed an easy life. Said, an Ethiopian, reached Saudi Arabia, but he was swiftly deported. Now he plans to risk the crossing again.

“My wife, who works in the house of a Saudi family, has remained in Saudi Arabia and sends me money so that I can go back there. My life is in Saudi Arabia now,” he said.

The UNHCR has launched a campaign to dissuade refugees from making the crossing, offering to house them in local camps, and local elders have joined in.

But with al-Shabaab vowing to step up its campaign after its leader was killed in a United States air strike and the Food and Agricultural Organisation warning of a major food shortage that could see half of the Somali population go hungry, the smugglers’ boats are likely to remain full for the foreseeable future.—Sapa-dpa

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