Es­cape from east­ern Africa

Drown­ings, dis­ease and a dev­as­tat­ing con­flict have failed to de­ter those head­ing north from east Africa


When the boat’s en­gines stopped, the beat­ings be­gan. The smug­glers tried to keep or­der by hit­ting the pan­ick­ing pas­sen­gers with ri­fle butts and their fists. It was night, and the Ye­meni coast was in­vis­i­ble, though only a few hun­dred me­tres away across a choppy sea.

“The boat floated for a while, then over­turned. I had never seen the sea be­fore so I did not know how to swim. I prayed to God to save me. I was lucky,” said Sahra Adam, a 31-year-old from a small town in south­ern So­ma­lia.

Thirty peo­ple are thought to have died in the pre­vi­ously un­re­ported sink­ing off the coast of Ye­men in Au­gust, many of them chil­dren.

The tragedy was among dozens that have oc­curred in re­cent months on one of the busiest clan­des­tine mi­gra­tion routes in the world. It leads from east­ern Africa to Ye­men, then on to wealthy Gulf states and some­times Europe. More than 100,000 peo­ple are ex­pected to travel along at least part of this “east­ern route” by the end of this year, as many as are an­tic­i­pated to cross the Mediter­ranean, ac­cord­ing to lat­est sta­tis­tics. It is sup­posed to be the safer op­tion, avoid­ing a long desert jour­ney.

Lo­cal hu­man­i­tar­ian of­fi­cials and se­cu­rity ex­perts say it is im­pos­si­ble to know how many have been killed in in­ci­dents sim­i­lar to that de­scribed by Adam. Es­ti­mates range from 150 a year to 10 times as many.

“There can be up to five or 10 boats leav­ing ev­ery day, some­times many more … Even if there is just one mi­grant dy­ing ev­ery day that’s too many, but there are likely to be many more deaths that are un­ac­counted for,” said Danielle Botti, a Nairobi-based an­a­lyst with the Mixed Mi­gra­tion Cen­tre.

Those who reach Ye­men, a coun­try torn apart by a civil war, cholera and

Peo­ple go in the other di­rec­tion too – many have fled Ye­men for So­ma­lia and Dji­bouti

famine, face sys­tem­atic abuse at the hands of lo­cal se­cu­rity forces while be­ing held in ap­palling con­di­tions in makeshift de­ten­tion camps.

Most of those mak­ing the jour­ney are Ethiopian, though some are from So­ma­lia and Eritrea. A re­cent UN sur­vey found al­most 85% said they were trav­el­ling to es­cape lim­ited eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties at home or poverty. Only a mi­nor­ity cited armed con­flict or hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. Most are young men. Of the many chil­dren, about a quar­ter are un­ac­com­pa­nied.

Adam, once a keen bas­ket­ball player, trav­elled be­cause her home town was in an area con­trolled by alShabaab, the al-Qaida-linked Is­lamist group. “Life was un­bear­able,” she said.

Peo­ple smug­glers only charge a few hun­dred dol­lars for the trip to Ye­men, a frac­tion of the cost de­manded for the more di­rect, and more lethal, route to Europe through Su­dan to Libya.

Yasin Muse Bindhe, a 42-year-old peo­ple smug­gler based in Bosaso, So­ma­lia, de­nied his net­work had ever forced peo­ple into the sea and blamed Ye­meni smug­glers for the deaths in re­cent years.

“Some­times when those bad guys see the anti-piracy forces [pa­trols of in­ter­na­tional war­ships] in the gulf of Aden, they start to force mi­grants to drown to es­cape from be­ing caught. That is when the prob­lem of shoot­ing starts,” he said.

Peo­ple travel in the op­po­site di­rec­tion too. Tens of thou­sands of have fled Ye­men for So­ma­lia and Dji­bouti. Oth­ers have made re­peated cross­ings of the gulf of Aden.

In Mogadishu last week, Ibrahim Hu­sein Mo­hamed, 27, was mak­ing fi­nal prepa­ra­tions to travel to Europe. A pre­vi­ous at­tempt via Su­dan and Libya last year ended in cap­tiv­ity in Tripoli. Mo­hamed, a qual­i­fied ac­coun­tant, was sold by peo­ple smug­glers to an armed mili­tia who forced him to work un­paid in a garage be­fore he was res­cued by the UN and lo­cal NGOs. He is un­de­terred.

“I have no fu­ture here. How can I stay here with­out know­ing what my fu­ture will be like? I can’t get a job. I can be killed eas­ily,” he said.

“I’m not afraid to die in the sea while I don’t have any right to life in my coun­try. My aim is to reach and live in Europe what­ever it takes.”

500 km 500 miles AB­DUL­LAH/REUTERS

Ye­men Punt­land BosasoMi­grants head to­wards Haradh on the Ye­menSaudi bor­der

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