September 10, 2008

MSF assists survivors of deadly sea crossing from Horn of Africa

Madrid/New York, September 10, 2008 —Refugees and migrants, they had escaped from conflict and extreme poverty in the Horn of Africa by trying to cross the Gulf of Aden. The survivors tell of their dangerous journey at the hands of brutal smugglers.

Madrid/New York, September 10, 2008 — A team from the international medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) found eight dead bodies yesterday, September 9, on the beach of Wadi Al-Barak in Yemen (30 kms east of Ahwar). Refugees and migrants, they had escaped from conflict and extreme poverty in the Horn of Africa by trying to cross the Gulf of Aden. During the rest of the day, 21 more dead bodies washed up on the coast, raising the total death toll to 29 people. According to survivors’ accounts, 10 more people died during the trip.

At 4:30am, the MSF team was alerted to a new arrival of people on the coast, the seventh in nine days. When the team reached the beach, they found a group of survivors and eight dead bodies. The survivors told MSF staff that the boat arrived in the middle of the night and stopped far from the coast in deep waters. The passengers were forced by extreme violence to jump into the water. Most of the people who died did not know how to swim.

The survivors explained that the smugglers were extremely brutal during the trip. According to their testimonies, up to 10 people died during the journey; several people were asphyxiated and three, including two children, were thrown into the sea by the smugglers. About 120 people were in the boat at the beginning of the journey.

“The smugglers promised us in Bossaso (Somalia) that we would be transported to Yemen in small groups with new, fast boats and with proper food and water,” said a 23-year-old Somali from Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.” However, the boat was an old one. They pointed at us with their weapons and forced us to jump inside. 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,” he said. “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.”

After being given first aid on the beach, the refugees went to the Ahwar Reception Centre, where MSF teams provided medical assistance and counselling.

“With the previous six boat arrivals, people had been treated humanely by the smugglers,” said MSF Head of Mission Alfonso Verdú. “We thought that the trend might have changed, until today. The horrific cases of 2007 are being repeated again. 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. The majority told us that they had no option but to flee from the violence exerted against them in Somalia and Ethiopia, even though they knew about the danger of the trip,” he said.  “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.”

MSF started its project in September 2007, providing medical and humanitarian assistance to refugees and migrants arriving on the Yemeni coast at the Abyan and Shabwa Governorates. During 2008, MSF has provided assistance to over 3,800 people, 580 of them in so far this month.

In June 2008, MSF released a report, entitled “No Choice,” to document the conditions of the perilous journey and to call for increased assistance for the thousands of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants fleeing their home countries.

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