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Desperate Africans Pay Heavy Price to Cross Gulf Of Aden

The United Nations refugee agency says last year more than 50,000 people made the perilous voyage in smugglers' boats across the Gulf of Aden which separates Somalia on the African continent from Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. And, it says at least 590 drowned and another 359 were reported missing.

The UN refugee agency says desperate people resort to desperate measures. And, in the case of Somalis and Ethiopians, it says thousands continue to risk their lives in an effort to escape war and poverty.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says last year more than 50,000 people, fleeing violence and persecution, crossed the Gulf of Aden from Somalia on rickety smugglers' boats.

He says they paid unscrupulous smugglers up to $100 each in hopes of escaping from a life of misery.

"There were again many reports of people being beaten to death during the crossings in 2008, but most of the deaths were due to drowning after passengers were forced overboard in treacherous waters off the Yemen coast in a bid by the smugglers to avoid detection by Yemeni authorities," he said. "The increase in arrivals reflects the desperate situation in Somalia and the Horn of Africa, a region which is scarred by civil war, political instability, famine and poverty."

Statistics show the measure of desperation gripping people in the Horn of Africa. In a year-end tally, the UNHCR notes a 70 percent increase in arrivals in Yemen last year over the number recorded in 2007.

While the numbers of those making the journey was higher, the agency notes the death toll in 2007 was substantially more than that of last year. In 2007, 1,400 people drowned, compared to 590 in 2008.

The UN refugee agency says it will continue its information campaigns in the Horn of Africa to warn people of the dangers of using smugglers. It says the agency and its partners are also running programs to improve living conditions for Africans so they do not need to risk their lives by crossing to Yemen.

In a related matter, the UNHCR is calling on European Union States, ahead of a Mediterranean Ministers meeting Tuesday, to ensure that people seeking asylum have access to territory and to fair procedures for examining their claims.