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Somalis willing to risk death to be smuggled to rich Arab states in the Gulf

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

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MOGADISHU, Somalia (AP) -  Asha Igal walked into a bus station in central Mogadishu and spent a year's savings on a bus ticket — the first step in a journey that she knows might kill her.

The trip starts with a four-day, 1,500 kilometer (930-mile) bus ride to northern Somalia, where she will find a ride to the bustling port city of Bossaso. From there, she hopes to pay smugglers to ferry her in a crowded, rickety boat across the treacherous Gulf of Aden so she can reach the richer Arab states of the Gulf and make a new life for herself.

At least 31 people died last week after smugglers forced hundreds overboard in stormy seas in an effort to make a fast getaway from Yemeni security. Even when the smugglers are not brutal, the boats are overcrowded and barely up to the two-day journey, which can cost US$200 per person. But 17-year-old Igal is among an increasing number of Somalis willing to risk death to escape the chaos and poverty of a bloodstained country.

"I know my death might be inevitable but I have to test my luck," Igal, who hopes to find work as a maid in Yemen or Saudi Arabia, told The Associated Press before handing over her US$24 ticket and boarding the bus Wednesday. "A better life and money to support my mother are my only goals."

Bossaso is the main departure point for tens of thousands of Somalis who are looking to escape this beleaguered country, which has not had an effective central government in more than a decade. Mortars rain down on the Somali capital, Mogadishu, almost daily amid a growing insurgency by Islamic militants. Two people, including Abdinassir Ahmed Serjito, a former Somali Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, were killed Wednesday in a fire fight

"While we will do all we can to address the humanitarian and protection needs, we fear that until the root causes of poverty, persecution and conflict are addressed, desperate people who have nothing left to lose will continue to risk their lives," said Erika Feller, the U.N. refugee agency's assistant high commissioner for protection.

Last year, about 26,000 people — mostly refugees from Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia — made the voyage to Yemen, with at least 330 dying and another 300 left missing, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees says. Waves of migrants leaving West Africa for Europe make similarly perilous journeys.

As in West Africa, the spur is often economic, with the oil-rich Gulf the El Dorado for migrants from East Africa.

The journey often has ended in disaster.

In December, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees said boats carrying would-be migrants sank after Yemeni coast guard patrols opened fire on them in the Gulf of Aden. Dozens were believed to have died.

When another boat capsized in February, smugglers in other boats on the same voyage forced their passengers to jump into the sea so the smugglers could return quickly to their departure point, according to a Yemeni human rights activist. More than 100 people died.

After the latest incident last week, a video released by the U.N. refugee agency showed a girl's body in the surf, and clothes strewn across the beach. Men carried bodies out of the water and placed them in shallow graves on the beach.

Thirty-one bodies have been found so far, and nearly 90 people were missing, Yemeni officials said.

Passengers who resisted the smugglers were stabbed or beaten with wooden and steel clubs, then thrown into the water where some were attacked by sharks, UNHCR said, citing survivors. Some bodies showed signs of severe mutilation and several Ethiopian women and one Somali were raped during the voyage.

A survivor, Aboubaker Mohamad Cali, told UNHCR the smugglers were "very brutal people."

Zeinab Ali Addon said many were forced to jump into the sea.

"We were extremely shocked when we discovered dead bodies on the beach," Ali Addon told UNHCR.

All the refugees had come from the town of Bossaso, UNHCR said.

Somalia has long been one of the most unstable countries in Africa. Renewed fighting there after a militant Islamic group was forced from power has focused new attention on its refugee crisis. And the problem is likely to worsen, the U.N. says, as thousands of desperate Somalis try to escape the poverty and turmoil in their country.

Ethiopia sent troops into Somalia in December to protect the internationally backed government, which was battling Islamic militants. But the situation remains chaotic, leaving many people desperate to get away.

In Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab region, the government is having a hard time dealing with the refugee influx. Out of 88,000 registered refugees in Yemen, about 84,000 are Somali, UNHCR said.

Isaac Munyae of the International Organization for Migration in Nairobi, Kenya, said the route from Bossaso to Yemen is a well-known arms smuggling route that became a destination for human traffickers in the past decade.

Besides threats from the smugglers, drowning and cramped conditions in the boats, pirates are a threat to any vessel traveling near Somalia. Piracy is rampant off Somalia's 3,000-kilometer (1,860-mile) coastline, Africa's longest.

The pirates are trained fighters, often dressed in military fatigues, using speedboats equipped with satellite phones and Global Positioning System equipment. They are typically armed with automatic weapons, anti-tank rocket launchers and grenades. The bandits target both passenger and cargo vessels for ransom or loot, using the money to buy weapons.

Migrants who do make it safely to Yemen face an uncertain future.

"Those who get through without being detected get hooked up with international criminal networks who exploit them because they have to find jobs," Munyae said.

Aden Abdirisaq Shino, a 30-year-old interviewed in the Somali capital, said he is willing to risk his life because he simply cannot make a living in Somalia.

"I am a Muslim, I believe I have a date to die," Shino said. "So instead of living a desperate and frustrated life, I am going to venture out."


AP writers Salad Duhul and Mohamed Sheikh Nor in Mogadishu, Ahmed Al-Haj in San'a, Yemen, Elizabeth A. Kennedy in Nairobi, Kenya, and Frank Jordans in Geneva contributed to this report.

Source: AP, Mar 28, 2007

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