Survivors recall how traffickers with AK-47s forced dozens into sea off Yemen, killing 51

The boat had left Bosaso in Somaliland about 16 hours earlier

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 11:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 14 August, 2017, 11:18pm

Traffickers used beatings and the threat of shooting to force more than 100 refugees, including children who could not swim, to jump into heavy seas off the coast of Yemen last week, survivors said. At least 50 people were killed.

It was the latest in a series of incidents in which potentially thousands of refugees have died.

Survivors contacted in Yemen said crew members armed with AK-47s told about 120 men, women and children that they would not be able to land them on beaches in Yemen and forced them to jump into the water while still at least 1km offshore at dawn last Tuesday.

The boat had left Bosaso, a port in Somaliland on the Gulf of Aden, about 16 hours earlier, the survivors said. Fifty-one refugees, mostly Somalis trying to reach Europe, have been confirmed dead, and the toll is expected to rise.

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My son was the only hope we had to survive. I have not heard from him. I am praying he will be OK
Mumino Dhubow

“The smugglers told us it was very risky to approach the shore as Yemeni authorities had arrested smugglers there. So they told us to jump. Some people shouted and begged the smugglers to take us closer, but they refused and started beating people with sticks. They had AK-47s, so everyone was afraid to argue, and people started jumping into the sea,” Abdirahim Ilmi Aano, 25, a labourer in Bosasso, told The Guardian.

“Unfortunately, very few survived. I remember some were very young and did not know how to swim,” Aano said.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said its staff found the shallow graves of 29 migrants on a beach in Shabwa governorate, Yemen, during a routine patrol last Tuesday morning. The dead had been buried hastily by other survivors.

The IOM estimates that about 55,000 migrants have left the Horn of Africa to go to Yemen since January. More than 30,000 of them are Somalians and Ethiopians aged under 18, and about a third are female. Most are hoping to find better economic opportunities in Gulf countries or travel on elsewhere, and are fleeing drought, war and repression in their own countries.

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On Thursday, in a second ­incident, smugglers carrying ­another boatload of largely Ethiopian refugees forced 160 people into the water at gunpoint.

Five bodies have been recovered so far, but about 50 are ­missing, the IOM said. According to the agency, the approximate average age of the passengers on the boat was 16.

In March, Somalia’s government blamed the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen for an attack on a boat that killed at least 42 refugees off Yemen’s coast.

Despite the risks, Yemen ­remains attractive to African ­migrants because there is no ­central authority to prevent them from travelling onwards.

This year, Somalia has been hit by a drought that has displaced 500,000 people and threatens more with starvation. Militant attacks have also intensified.

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Mumino Dhubow, mother of a 17-year-old on Tuesday’s boat, said she had sold family land and borrowed money to pay for his journey. Her son called her from Bosaso to tell her he had paid US$500 to a smuggler for his passage across the Gulf of Aden and would leave soon.

“Life is hard here. There is war. People are killed every day ... My son was the only hope we had to survive. I have not heard from him. I am praying he will be OK,” Dhubow said.

Aano said he had left three children and his wife behind in the central Somalian town of ­Beletwein, but could not return. He now plans to travel to Sudan by another unsafe, illegal sea journey and then on to Libya. The journey will cost between US$5,500 and US$7,000, he said.