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.”
Yemen Puntland BosasoMigrants head towards Haradh on the YemenSaudi border