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Deaths rise in Gulf of Aden, urgent action needed

As deaths rise in Gulf of Aden, UN refugee chief appeals for urgent action

The escalating death toll and harrowing survivors’ tales in the Gulf of Aden have prompted the head of the United Nations refugee agency to call today for international action to stem the flow of desperate people crossing from Somalia to Yemen in rickety boats run by ruthless smugglers.

“With the sailing season just starting, we cannot simply stand by for the next several months while hundreds or thousands more desperate people go to their deaths in the Gulf of Aden at the hands of smugglers,” said António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “The international community has to help – and put pressure on – local authorities in Puntland and Bossasso to crack down on the smugglers,” he added, referring to the coastal area of Somalia’s north-east region.

“We need to get information to those being exploited by the smugglers as well, so they know the dangers,” he elaborated. “We're also appealing to international shippers to keep an eye out for boats in distress in the Gulf, and on governments in the region to do all they can to help those who need it on their shores.”

At least 150 people have died crossing the Gulf of Aden in the last three weeks, UNHCR reports. Twenty-five people were reported dead today off the coast of Yemen, while at least 75 bodies washed ashore last week after smugglers on four boats carrying some 400 people forced the passengers to jump overboard as they neared the coast. Another 39 people were rescued from their drifting boat by a Danish ship on Wednesday night, but one man died before he could receive proper medical attention.

In the latest incident on Friday, two boats run by Somali smugglers and carrying about 120 people were found offshore by Yemeni coastal guards. Ten people were found dead in the engine room of one boat, and two others died after being taken ashore. Survivors said another 13 had died during the voyage and their bodies thrown overboard.

On Wednesday night, the Danish tanker ship Eli Maersk rescued 39 Somalis and Ethiopians who had been drifting in the Gulf of Aden for several days after their boat engine failed. Earlier today, a UNHCR spokesman commended the Maersk company and the ship personnel. In his statement today, High Commissioner Guterres also praised the captain and crew of Eli Maersk, and thanked Djiboutian authorities for their help.

Every year, thousands of people cross the Gulf of Aden in unsafe vessels run by smuggling rings between the months of September and March, when the weather is generally calm in the area. Many of them set sail from Bossasso in the Puntland region, trying to reach the Middle East and beyond in search of safety, refuge from persecution or simply better economic conditions. Hundreds are believed to be lost at sea every year, their deaths unreported. Those who survive the hazardous journey often arrive in Yemen, where UNHCR runs a reception centre and a camp.

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