No Choice: Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants Risk Death Crossing Gulf of Aden

Thousands of people risk their lives every year to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict, violence, drought and poverty. Due to the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the drought affecting the Horn of Africa, the numbers of new arrivals are increasing: in 2007, according to the UN, 30,000 people embarked on the dangerous trip; during the first five months of 2008 more than 20,000 arrived in Yemen. Many of them never made it: in 2007 more than 1,400 dead and missing were reported; so far, in 2008, 400 did not reach the shores of Yemen alive.
© MSF
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Thousands of people risk their lives every year to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict, violence, drought and poverty. During 2007, almost 30,000 took the dangerous voyage to seek relative safety in Yemen. 

Thousands of people risk their lives every year to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict, violence, drought and poverty. Due to the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the drought affecting the Horn of Africa, the numbers of new arrivals are increasing: in 2007, according to the UN, 30,000 people embarked on the dangerous trip; during the first five months of 2008 more than 20,000 arrived in Yemen. Many of them never made it: in 2007 more than 1,400 dead and missing were reported; so far, in 2008, 400 did not reach the shores of Yemen alive.
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The boat trip is fraught with danger; the smugglers are notorious for their brutality. Fatality rates are very high; for 2007, it is estimated that at least five percent of those setting out on the dangerous journey did not reach the shores of Yemen alive. People arrive on shore exhausted, many of them sick and emotionally shattered. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) mobile medical teams provide assistance to the refugees upon arrival on the Yemeni shore.
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Refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers have told MSF harrowing stories of death and survival. Boats designed to carry 30 to 40 people at the most are packed with over 100 passengers, many of them stuck in small windowless storage places in the hold. People are forced to sit in the same position without moving and are, in the large majority of cases, deprived of food and water.
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The smugglers are extremely brutal, beating anyone who dares to move. Conditions are even worse for people stuck in the holds of the boat—tiny, windowless spaces meant for storage. Twenty people or more are crowded in these spaces, literally sitting on top of each other.
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Conditions are so harsh that deaths during the trip were reported from one third of the boats. Several of those interviewed by MSF also reported cases in which the smugglers threw passengers, including children, overboard. "They beat you badly on the boat, the have guns and knives. The condition on the boat was really very bad; I preferred to die, because of the beating. We had no water and nothing to eat. It is overcrowded, people are sitting on you, cannot move. People are sometimes passing urine and stool on you," a 50-year-old Somali man from Afgooye told MSF.
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Landing on the Yemen coast is very dangerous: to avoid being caught by the military, many boats arrive at night and do not come close to the shore. The smugglers force the passengers to jump into deep water. Many people drown: they cannot swim, are unable to move because of numbness, or are disoriented and cannot find the coast.
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An MSF team assisting refugees and migrants who cross the Gulf of Aden encountered 56 bodies near Arqa on the Yemeni shore on December 15, 2007. When the MSF team arrived in the morning, they first found a group of 49 survivors on the shore, 10 of them women. Further ahead were dozens of bodies washed up on a five-kilometer stretch of coast. The team counted 56 deceased people, more than half of them women. Also among them were five children. The survivors told the MSF team that the boat on which they were traveling capsized and that many passengers were trapped.
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Most of those interviewed are aware of the risks, but told MSF that they had no choice, this being their only survival strategy to escape from violence and destitution. For those who reach the shores of Yemen after the perilous trip, the plight is not over. Yemen is a country with limited resources and assistance is scarce.
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"To date, humanitarian response has been inadequate. More international assistance is urgently needed and donor countries should commit themselves politically and financially. The response capacity of those who provide assistance to the refugees needs to be increased and more organisations should intervene," says Alfonso Verdú, MSF General Coordinator in Yemen.
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Refugees are taken to Ahwar Reception Center, where they are registered and receive medical assistance and counseling from MSF.
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