November 21, 2008

© MSF

Refugees and migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia arrived onshore in Yemen last year.

Every year, thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians risk their lives crossing the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. Hoping to escape the conflict and extreme poverty in their own countries, these desperate passengers are regularly abused and sometimes killed by the brutal smugglers they pay to get them across.

Boats made to hold a maximum of 30 to 40 people are crammed with 100 to 120 people, sometimes more. To keep passengers from moving, smugglers beat them with sticks, belt buckles, or knives. “We have a lot of patients with very deep cuts, sometimes on the head, sometimes on the arms,” says Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) head of mission in Yemen, Alfonso Verdú. To avoid detection, when they get close to the Yemen shore, the smugglers often force the passengers to jump out of the boat into deep water, whether they can swim or not.

“In order to intimidate us, they beat us heavily with their belts. One of the smugglers threw petrol on us and showed off his lighter.”

“They pointed at us with their weapons and forced us to jump,” says a 23-year-old Somali man who survived the violent journey that ended with at least 29 people dead on September 9 this year. “We were 120 people, overcrowded. The trip took two days. We did not receive food or water. Some of us were placed in the hull. Several people died because of asphyxia; some others were thrown overboard, among them two children. In order to intimidate us, they beat us heavily with their belts. One of the smugglers threw petrol on us and showed off his lighter.”

MSF has been working on the southern shore of Yemen since September 2007 to provide medical, psychological, and humanitarian assistance to these migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. A network of people in the communities along the 170-mile coast alert MSF when the boats arrive. Mobile teams are then sent to the coast to provide emergency medical and psychosocial assistance, food and water, and kits with clothing and toiletries. MSF has provided assistance to over 3,800 people so far this year.

An Act of Desperation

Yemen 2007 © MSF

A total of 56 dead bodies washed up onshore on December 12 last year. Only about 50 people survived that crossing, which started out with an estimated 150 passengers.

Yemen has long been a country of origin, destination, and transit for refugees and migrants because of its proximity to the Horn of Africa and the wealthy Gulf states. Yemen itself, however, is the poorest country in the Arabian Peninsula and is struggling with deep poverty, unemployment, rapid population growth, and dwindling water resources. MSF provides medical care to people in the north of the country, which is gripped by fighting between government troops and the Al Houthi rebel movement.

Lacking safe and legal alternatives to leave their countries, refugees and migrants must use smugglers to cross the Gulf of Aden. Despite the known dangers of the trip, the numbers of those risking their lives to get to Yemen is increasing as more people fl ee the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the drought affecting the Horn of Africa. During the first five months of 2008, more than 20,000 people arrived by sea in Yemen, more than double the number for the same period last year, and 400 people had died or were missing, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The actual number of casualties is likely higher, as many bodies lost at sea are never found.

“We were expecting a massive arrival of refugees and migrants— the 2008 figures are double those of 2007.

But it is clearly not only the numbers that are increasing: the violence has tripled since the beginning of September.”

This year, several boats arrived with passengers who had not been beaten, which gave Verdú’s team some hope. But that changed when MSF teams witnessed the 29 dead bodies washed up on the beach at Wadi Al-Barak in September. Survivors of the journey said 10 more people had died during the trip. “The horrific cases of 2007 are being repeated again,” says Verdú. “People have been through terrible things. One woman lost her three young children. A young Ethiopian witnessed his 70-year-old father being thrown into the sea at night and only recovered his dead body the next morning,” he says. “We were expecting a massive arrival of refugees and migrants the 2008 figures are double those of 2007. But it is clearly not only the numbers that are increasing: the violence has tripled since the beginning of September.”

Helping New Arrivals

In April, MSF opened a medical facility in a new UNHCR reception center in the coastal town of Ahwar. Migrants stay at the reception center for a few days to recuperate from their journey. MSF gives them basic medical and psychological assistance, and they are registered by UNHCR before being taken to the Kharaz Refugee Camp.

About two-thirds of arrivals are Somalis; one-third Ethiopians. Yemen has been welcoming to Somalis, recognizing them as prima facie refugees, which means they don’t have to make a case for why they fl ed their troubled home country. Ethiopians that survive the crossing, however, face more challenges: they are considered illegal and are subject to deportation without regard to asylum claims.

MSF is urging the international community to do more to protect the migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers who arrive in Yemen and to provide more support. “To date, the humanitarian response has been inadequate,” Verdú says. “More international assistance is urgently needed and donor countries should commit themselves politically and fi nancially.”

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