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IOM Says Many Ethiopians, Somalis Risk Lives to Flee


The International Organization for Migration, IOM, says it expects thousands of Ethiopians and Somalis to try to cross the Gulf of Aden to get to Yemen in the coming months, when the so-called "migration season" begins. So far this year, the agency says, 385 people have died while attempting the sea journey. Malcolm Webb reports from Nairobi.

The IOM* says thousands of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers will attempt to cross the Gulf in overcrowded open fishing boats, throughout the "migration season." Over 500 people have died or gone missing trying to cross since January, and as the sea becomes less stormy at this time of year, IOM expect the numbers to increase significantly.

According to IOM, there are already about 3,000 Ethiopians in the coastal town of Bossasso in Northern Somalia, waiting to make the 300 kilometer crossing, along with a large number of internally displaced Somalis. Most have already travelled a long way overland, often with people-smugglers. IOM's Regional Program Development Officer in Nairobi, Tal Raviv, says the land journey is also very dangerous.

"We do know that people are being abandoned in the middle of the desert and have to fend for themselves. It's very common. And people have to walk as far as 23 days to walk somewhere. They are also beaten by the smugglers, robbed again and again, so we can only assume that some of them perish there as well," Raviv said.

Raviv says while some of the migrants are fleeing extreme poverty and looking for better opportunities in Saudi Arabia and beyond, others are escaping the conflicts in Mogadishu and the Ogaden region of Ehtiopia, and so they are entitled to asylum seeker status.

She says the people-smugglers who transport them belong to networks who ruthlessly exploit the migrants, charging them high prices that require many to sell everything they own.

"They sell the house that they live in, or sell the cows they have, and borrow from friends and family, it's very costly. And we came across migrants last year that said they would rather die at sea, and not go back, because they owe so much money to so many people," Raviv said.

This year the number of people trying to make the crossing is higher than previous years. IOM says this is because of the deteriorating security situation in the region. Along with U.N. agencies, it is planning an awareness campaign along the migrants' routes and in their source-communities. They aim to inform potential migrants of the dangers of the journey, and to help people access the services available to them from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. But IOM acknowledges that the people will keep attempting to make the perilous journey as long as insecurity continues

* - corrected 31/8/07. Originally identified incorrectly as a U.N. agency.