SOMALIA: Risking all for a new life in Yemen

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Genet Mengesha left her home in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa, to undertake the uncertain, often treacherous, journey to Yemen shortly after the 2005 elections.

"I was tired of the violence; my brother was one of those students who were killed," the 24-year-old Genet told IRIN on 2 December in Bosasso, capital of Somalia's self-declared autonomous region of Puntland.

Genet and her husband had planned to make their way to the port city where they would pay a smuggler to get them into Yemen.

"We met a broker in Addis who charged us US$100 to get to Nazareth and then another broker to Harar [both in Ethiopia]," she said. "In Burao [Somaliland], the broker kept us in a compound for 15 days, robbed us and threatened to kill anyone who tried to escape."

Three members of her group were killed when they tried to escape. "He killed a woman and two men, because they were so hungry they tried to see if they could find food," she explained. "He is well known and feared."

The group was put on a bus to Bosasso, but they were dumped before their destination. "We had no idea where we were, so we kept walking," Genet said. "It took us four days to get to Bosasso."

Despite the hardships, the group was happy to reach Bosasso - a trip Genet said cost her $300 - because it was the last stop to Yemen. "We had to spend time here to make some money to go to Yemen," she said.

Because of her pregnancy and the difficulties in raising money, Genet and her husband agreed he should go ahead. But like many migrants, he drowned when the boat capsized near the Yemeni coastline - which she only found out weeks later when one of the survivors called.

Now the mother of a nine-month-old baby, the former university student lives in a shack with other would-be migrants in Bosasso.

Abdulkadir Nur, 30, arrived in Bosasso 15 days previously from Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital. Sitting on the dusty floor of a tea kiosk, the former bus driver and father of six weighed his options.

"I have heard of the dangers, but it is a risk I am willing to take," he said. "Staying in Mogadishu was a guaranteed death sentence. If we were not killed by the shells and bullets, we would have died of hunger."

He added: "There was no work because of the security; it got to the point where we could not get out of our house; [here] I have a 50-50 chance of survival and making it to Saudi Arabia."

Constant influx

According to local authorities in Bosasso, the influx began in 2000 with Somalis who were escaping insecurity in the south. It expanded in 2004-2005 when Ethiopians joined in, becoming a fully-fledged business.

Over the years, scores of migrants have died. On 29 November, for example, more than 80 people, including women and children, died off the Yemeni coast, according to Somalia’s consul-general in Aden, Hussein Haji Ahmed.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), at least 20,000 African migrants have crossed the Gulf of Aden this year in boats operated by traffickers from Somali ports; 439 people have died and another 489 are missing and feared dead.

Would-be migrants told IRIN there was a well-established route run by brokers, who are connected to boat owners, from Addis through Harar and Jigiga in Ethiopia; Togwajale, Hargeisa and Burao in Somaliland, and on to Bosasso.

Bosasso officials said there were thousands of would-be migrants in the port city, many living in difficult conditions with inadequate food, shelter and sanitation.

"The sanitation problems in Bosasso caused by the migrants are obvious," an aid worker told IRIN. "They sleep and use every available space as a toilet. We have been lucky so far as we have had no major outbreaks of any disease."

Yusuf Nur Bide, the acting mayor of Bosasso, told IRIN: "Our estimate at present is that there are about 10,000 migrants in Bosasso; they are everywhere and are sleeping in the open with all the health risk this entails."

There are “those who want to leave no matter what, economic migrants who want to find work and stay, and those who straddle the first two categories", he added.

On average, he said, five trucks brought about 200 migrants each into Bosasso daily. Some of the migrants, particularly the Somalis, join the already established displaced community in the town while others set up makeshift shelters, he added.


Catherine Weibel, an information officer with UNHCR in Somalia, said an inter-agency taskforce had been set up to undertake an advocacy campaign targeting migrants seeking to reach Yemen.

It comprises representatives of several agencies including the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UNHCR, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Bide said the local administration had cracked down on the problem "by arresting some smugglers, repatriating migrants and confiscating properties used to [house] smuggle people. We even passed a law to discourage people from helping them, hoping that they will go back if no-one helps them; but it did not stop them.”

Appealing for assistance, he said it was beyond Puntland's capacity to stop the problem. "We need major help if we are going to stop this. The international community needs to accept that this is an international problem."

Locals in the port city, however said, people-smuggling was a highly organised business with "wakiilo" (representatives) in all major towns of Somalia and Ethiopia.

The wakiil, one source said, work with "Mukhalas" (brokers) and boat owners. "Everybody knows who they are and where they operate," he added. "If the government was serious about ending this, they could do it in an hour."

Blaming the Puntland authorities for reluctance to address the problem "for financial and political reasons", one boat owner said many of his colleagues were "politically connected" and "it would be politically difficult for the government to shut them down".

Some local aid workers agreed that the authorities were not doing enough. "They could do a lot more if there was the political will," one aid worker said.

However, Ali Abdi Aware, the minister for local government, told IRIN: "We have done more than anyone else to address this problem." The administration, he added, had confiscated boats and trucks used to ferry migrants, arrested and prosecuted smugglers.

"The US with all its power could not stop Mexicans; the EU could not stop African migrants. How on Earth do you expect Puntland with its very limited resources to tackle the problem by itself? We have asked for help many times but none came forward. It is not a question of political will, but of resources."

Apart from the inter-agency "mixed-migration" taskforce, there is no aid agency specifically tasked to help the would-be migrants in Bosasso. "They have no legal status, so there is not much one can do for them," one aid worker said.

Another source said the aid agencies faced a dilemma. "You want them to have access to help but you don't want to make it so attractive that more will come," he said.

Aware said his administration would carry out campaigns to warn would-be migrants of the dangers involved. "Right now, that and pressure on boat owners is all we can do.

"We don't have the means to patrol our coast as effectively as we would like; when we close one port they go to another," he added. "Instead of criticising us for doing little, the international community should start doing a little bit."

Source: IRIN