Thousands of Somalis brave risky sea escapes

February 1, 2011 5:00:10 AM PST
A boat smuggling 36 migrants fleeing war-ravaged Somalia for Yemen stopped dead in the Gulf of Aden when the engine failed. Anxious passengers stood up to see what was going on, causing the vessel to capsize and pitch them into the choppy waters. By moonlight, Nasteeho Mohamud Weheliye saw her companions drowning. She survived by clutching a floating plastic jerry can. The captain and his assistant also survived but all the other migrants apparently perished.

A year later Weheliye lives on the beach alongside the gulf. She swears to never try the crossing again, but each year thousands of Africans do, braving shark- and pirate-infested waters. Many die. "Those people who are risking their lives on the treacherous sea to reach Yemen barely know the dangers they are taking," said Weheliye. "I learned my lesson the hard way. I will never ever go back to the sea."

Driven from their homes often by violence, poverty or persecution, more than 181,000 migrants, most of them Ethiopians and Somalis, arrived in Yemen in the last three years, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency. It says that in 2010, 65 percent of the new arrivals came through the Red Sea while most of the rest came across the Gulf of Aden. More than 1,100 people went missing over the three years and are presumed dead.

Most make the journey in tiny, rickety boats. In the first week of 2011 alone, more than 80 people were feared dead after their boats capsized off Yemen's coast.

There are other dangers: Some smugglers pack as many passengers onboard as possible, then force people over the side at sea. Boats can be blown off course.

The number of arriving families registered by the Danish Refugee Council in Yemen increased from nearly 1,600 in 2009 to more than 2,300 last year, said Khadra Elmi of the DRC, which also registered more than 1,200 unaccompanied children. This represents just a part of the overall number of migrants arriving in Yemen, one of the poorest Arab nations.

Gamal Al-Najjar of the U.N.'s refugee agency in Yemen said Somali migrants are recognized as refugees as soon as they arrive in Yemen, but Ethiopians and other nationals are screened to determine their status. Al-Najjar said the agency has three centers along the Yemeni coastlines aimed at receiving new arrivals and camps that provide food, shelter, health services and education.

Transporting the migrants through Somalia involves a network of brokers scattered across the country, with each broker getting his cut out of the $120 paid by each migrant, said boat captain Madar Iid, who ferried 35 passengers to Yemen in late 2010.

In Bossaso, migrants change hands like goods. They spend a minimum of two days in a broker's house, typically a rundown one-room structure with filthy toilets and no mattresses. An adjoining makeshift shelter -- made of poles, sticks and tattered clothes -- serves as a restaurant for the migrants during the day and a sleeping site at night. Then they're handed over to boat owners in the wee hours. From launching points near Bossaso, it is a roughly 200-miles (320-kilometer) journey to Yemen.

The boats are rudimentary and small, ranging from 9 meters (10 yards) long to 15 meters (16 yards) with no emergency kit. The small boats carry 30 to 35 passengers, while the larger ones can be crowded with more than 125 people. The length of the trip ranges from 12 hours for small boats in good shape to 48 hours, sometimes more, depending on conditions.

Despite the arduous conditions, Ahmed Hassan Ali, 33, said he's determined to cross the Gulf of Aden to Yemen.

"I don't want to beg my peers for favors and money," said Ali, who says he has been deported seven times from Saudi Arabia since 1993. He said he wants to find work to support his nine children and two wives in Mogadishu, Somalia's war-torn capital.

Weheliye, recalling her own brush with death, said she fears for the migrants.

Before the waters could rush into her boat from all directions, she jumped overboard and swam with the help of a tightly tied bag that contained her clothes. A few minutes later, she grabbed onto a jerry can that had drifted from the boat. She rocked with the waves for hours until the captain and his assistant appeared.

"My brothers," she shouted, "come and help me."

The trio was finally rescued by a boat that rushed to the sea after bodies started to wash up ashore.

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