Thursday 14 December 2017

19 drown as smugglers push 160 off boat in new outrage

The narrow waters between the Horn of Africa and Yemen have been a popular migration route despite Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Photo: PA
The narrow waters between the Horn of Africa and Yemen have been a popular migration route despite Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Photo: PA

Samuel Osborne

At least 19 migrants are presumed to have drowned after 160 people were forced from a boat into rough seas off the coast of Yemen by smugglers in what may be a worrying new trend, the UN migration agency has said.

The report from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) came less than a day after it said up to 50 migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia were "deliberately drowned" by smugglers who pushed them from a separate boat off the coast of Shabwa province in southern Yemen.

"We're wondering if this is a new trend," said Olivia Headon, an IOM spokesperson. "The smugglers are well aware of what's happening in Yemen, so it may just be they're trying to protect their own neck while putting other people's lives at risk." Six bodies were found on the beach, while 13 remain missing, presumed dead, Ms Headon said.

Smugglers were pushing migrants into the sea away from the mainland for fear of government boats, amid reinforced border controls, or to avoid encountering armed groups on shore in the war-torn country, the IOM said. They were then going back to Africa to pick up more migrants. The passengers were mostly from Ethiopia and had an average age of around 16. In the first drowning, on Wednesday, smugglers pushed 120 passengers into the water using guns and other weapons.

The narrow waters between the Horn of Africa and Yemen have been a popular migration route despite Yemen's ongoing civil war. Migrants, most of them Ethiopians, try to make their way to the oil-rich Gulf countries. Along the route, they are vulnerable to abuse by armed trafficking rings, many of them believed to be connected to the armed groups involved in the war.

"They're sold this idea of a future that probably doesn't even exist in the Gulf countries where they can make money they wouldn't make at home, where they can get a job and start providing for themselves or their families," Ms Headon said. "Unfortunately this dream can become death, because they are not equipped with all the information about the dangers of the route.

"Right now, it's the windy season, it's not safe to be in these small boats crossing these waters. Yemen is in conflict, they might be aware of that, but they might not know the whole extent. What it comes down to is that they know the risks, but they've got this pitch that has been sold to them by these salesmen, these absolute criminals. It's like a balancing act: 'Do I stay here or do I go to this place that has been sold to me as heaven, even when I know the risk and could be abused along the way?'"

Yemen's conflict itself is a deadly risk. In March, Somalia's government blamed the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen for an attack on a boat that killed at least 42 Somali refugees off Yemen's coast.

More than 111,500 migrants landed on Yemen's shores last year, up from about 100,000 the year before, according to the Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a grouping of international agencies that monitors migration in the area.

Already this year 55,000 migrants have taken the hazardous route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen to seek possible opportunities offered in the Gulf, the IOM said.

Yemen itself is beset by a two-year civil war in which forces loyal to the Saudi-backed government are pitted against Iran-backed Houthi rebels. (© Independent News Service)

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