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East Africans Risk Drowning, Violence to Escape Poverty

Thirty-nine people who had been stranded for days in the Gulf of Aden between Somalia and Yemen were rescued Wednesday by a Danish vessel. They are the lucky ones among the rising wave of illegal migrants from the Horn of Africa who make the perilous journey to Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries to escape violence at home and seek a better life elsewhere.

The crew of a Danish vessel Wednesday spotted the 39 people waving frantically from aboard a small, rickety boat foundering in the Gulf of Aden. They were dehydrated and exhausted. One died shortly after the rescue, and one woman had given birth the day before, United Nations officials say.

They are part of a massive wave of migration from the poor, conflict-ridden areas of eastern Africa to the oil-rich countries of the Middle East and on to Europe.

Spokeswoman for the U.N. refugee agency Astrid Van Genderen Stort says, using ancient trade routes along Africa's Indian Ocean coast to the Gulf of Aden, on average 100 people a day arrive on the shores of Yemen during the calm-water months of September through March.

"There are a lot of Somalis and Ethiopians that have come across: Somalis most likely from the situation in their country, the lawlessness there," said Ms. Stort. "Ethiopians might be going because of finding economic opportunities. Part of them are economic migrants and trying to use these routes to reach that goal. And crossing oceans is never easy and getting access to countries is never easy. But people take the risks and pay thousands and thousands of dollars trying to try to find a better life, risking their lives especially in this part of the world."

It's a two-day journey across rough waters infested by sharks, pirates and unscrupulous smugglers.

Most of those who make the journey, the U.N. says, are simply looking for jobs and a better life for their children, especially as Africa appears to be losing ground in its effort to raise standards of living. They are escaping joblessness, oppressive governments, lawlessness and starvation.

The migrants are an easy prey for profiteers who are often the smugglers themselves.

This week, smugglers ordered at gunpoint 369 Somalis and Ethiopians onboard four motorized boats to jump into the water and swim ashore. They were about six kilometers from the coast. Only 50 people made it to shore alive and were taken to a camp in Yemen run by the UN agency for refugees. The bodies of another 75 were recovered.

In March, at least 90 people, including women and children, drowned when their boat sank in the Gulf of Aden not long after leaving the Somali port town of Bossaso, a major hub for illegal migration. Three people survived, some badly beaten. Two days later, another 85 people were ordered to jump overboard once their boat neared the Yemeni coast. Of that group, 18 of them drowned.

These are among the recent incidents that have been reported, usually by the survivors themselves. But U.N. spokeswoman Stort says most deaths at sea go unreported.

"A lot of it goes unreported because we don't even hear about it," said Ms. Stort. "So many things happen on the sea and we are not on sea and other monitoring agencies are not on sea. I mean, how many more boats are on the sea?"

The U.N. refugee agency has called for the creation of an organization mandated to safeguard the Somali coastline until Somalia's own authorities developed the capacity to undertake that function.