YEMEN. The number of people illegally crossing the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea is on the rise, the United Nations refugee agency reported today, as it confirmed that 12 people fleeing Somalia in the past week have been found dead on a beach in Yemen and 28 others remain missing.
Smugglers forced up to 40 people overboard into the deep waters of the Gulf of Aden as they were on the last leg of the 36-hour journey from strife-torn Somalia to Yemen on Sunday, the 75 survivors told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at its Ahwar reception centre.
The survivors told UNHCR that the boat left on Friday with 115 passengers who were mainly Somalis and Ethiopians. The passengers had each paid US$100 before leaving, but when the Yemeni coast was in sight, the smugglers demanded more money. Those who did not or could not pay, mostly Ethiopians, were severely beaten and thrown overboard.
UNHCR also reported that figures from the first ten months of the year show a significant increase in the number of people being smuggled across the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea compared to the whole of 2007.
By the end of October, some 30,000 boat people arrived on Italian shores, compared to 19,900 during the whole of 2007. At the same time the number of people reported dead or missing at sea on their way to Italy and Malta in the first ten months of this year was 509, up from 471 in 2007.
Figures for those crossing to Malta show a similar trend. Nearly 2,600 boat people arrived by the end of September this year, compared to 1,800 for 2007, and by the end of July in Greece an estimated 15,000 arrived on the mainland or on one of the Aegean islands, compared to 19,900 from the whole of 2007. The trend is the same in mainland Spain and the Canary Islands.
The number of people smuggled to Europe who seek asylum varies from country to country, with around 80% of those arriving in Malta by sea applying for asylum and 60% receiving refugee status or another form of international protection. In Italy around one third, or some 7,000 people, apply and around half are recognised as refugees. In Spain, however, only around 3% of boat people reaching its shores apply for asylum despite the availability of information and counselling.
UNHCR highlighted the humanitarian crisis in the Gulf of Aden, where every year tens of thousands of people flee the Horn of Africa – a region scarred by civil war, political instability, famine and poverty – in search of protection in Yemen and further afield.
During the first ten months of 2008, over 38,000 people made the dangerous crossing from Somalia to Yemen, a considerable increase from the total of 29,500 who made the journey last year. Whereas last year some 1,400 died making the crossing, so far this year some 600 people have been reported dead or missing in the Gulf.
UNHCR says it is stepping up its efforts in Yemen by improving reception centres for those who survive the journey, while improving conditions of people with protection needs in the Horn of Africa so that they do not feel the need to risk their lives on the crossing.