Somalia’s worsening humanitarian crisis is blamed for a large increase in the number of people trying to flee the country to Yemen. The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) says over 50 thousand people used smugglers to cross the gulf in 2008. Nearly 600 of them drowned and about 360 were reported missing.
From Nairobi, Catherine Wiebel, spokesperson for the UNHCR, talked to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua, comparing the 2007 and 2008 figures.
“It’s almost 50 percent more people who tried to do the crossing,” she says.
UNHCR and Yemen authorities have programs in place to help the refugees if they make it safely ashore.
“When they are Somalis they are automatically granted refugee status because they come from a country which direly affected by conflict. Many of them go to refugee camps, which are managed by UNHCR. Others live like urban refugees or they try to find jobs within the towns in Yemen. But of course they live in difficult conditions because it’s a poor country and it’s not easy for them to find a job,” she says.
As for the many Ethiopians, who cross the Gulf of Aden, most of them are said to travel to the gulf countries on their own.
Officials figures say at least 590 people drowns and 359 were reported missing. Much of this can be blamed on smugglers forcing their passengers overboard.
Wiebel says, “Most people, who die, die because they are not able to swim. Very often the smugglers don’t want to take the risk of being arrested by the Yemeni coast guard. So, instead of going to the shore and letting people disembark the boats safely, they just ask them to disembark when they are still in high seas. And of course many of the people who were on the boat are women (and) children. These people have not been able to drink water for sometimes many days. They are very exhausted. They are often asked to jump into the water at night and of course many of them drown.”
She says the price to hire a smuggler varies, depending on the weather and the time of the year. “Currently, we could say that the price of the crossing is between $75 and $100 per person,” she says.
Because of the high price, many men leave their families behind, hoping to make the crossing, find a job and then send money back to pay smugglers to bring them across. This is often the case in Bosasso in northeastern Somalia.
Wiebel says, “Very often it results in families being broken because someone will do the crossing, but not all members of the family can go.”
The humanitarian crisis in Somalia is considered one of the worst, if not the worst, in the world. As a result, more Somalis are fleeing the country, willing to risk a dangerous gulf crossing.
“A few years ago, the number of people who were crossing was equally divided between the Ethiopian migrants and the Somali. But…more recently, there has been an increase in the number of Somalis who want to cross. In 2008, for instance, two-thirds of the people who crossed were Somalis,” she says.
Many of the Somalis were originally from the capital, Mogadishu. “They are totally in despair because they have been out of the city for sometimes as long as two years. They think that they cannot go back. So, for them, the idea is to go, leave their country at once and try to rebuild their life abroad,” says.