Risking all to get to Middle East

Washed up on the beach — hidden half of Afr-ica’s people smuggling epidemic. A black sandal, size 24, made in Japan. A white laceless trainer. A brown belt, a khaki jacket, a blue bag with the label “Bravo’’.

“From dead people,’’ said Ali Haji Younis, a 21-year-old Ethiopian man, picking up a child’s shoe near the sea’s edge. “Eaten by the fishes.’’ Washed up on Somalia’s northern coast, this is the evidence of the hidden half of Africa’s people smuggling epidemic. In recent months the wave of African migrants setting sail from Mauritania to Spain has made world headlines. But at the same time, up to 20,000 Somalis and Ethiopians have made similarly journeys across the Gulf of Aden to the Middle East.

Thirty-nine people drowned this week after being forced at gunpoint to jump into the sea by the smuggler transporting them, according to the UNHCR. Their boat was in a convoy of three carrying 350 passengers. An average of 100 people attempted to cross from Somalia to Yemen by boat every day from September to March, UNHCR figures show. During six days in January alone UNHCR counted 22 smugglers’ boats arriving in Yemen. One carried six dead among the 65 passengers; 14 more had been thrown overboard during the journey. Such casualty rates are not uncommon. Rough seas mean boats often capsize in the shark-infested waters. Others drift for days at a time, with little food or water on board. Even when the boats do reach Yemen, the smugglers force passengers — including children — to swim the final section.

“It’s a disaster,’’ said Bosteyo Said Yusuf, of the Somalia Reunification Women’s Union, a local NGO in the port city of Bossaso, in Puntland state. “A mini-nation is dying at sea.’’ While fatality figures are difficult to verify — the trade is secretive and many bodies are never found — the UN confirmed 262 deaths in January and February. Since September, officials say, the dead could number close to 1,000.

But the danger acts as little deterrent. Dreams of work in Yemen or, even better, Saudi Arabia — viewed as a land of riches, mean the smugglers’ trade has increased dramatically over the past few years. Many of the would-be migrants are Somalis who are feeling insecure and can claim refugee status once in Yemen. But an increasing number are Ethiopians desperate to escape poverty and, some say, political persecution at home.

Muna Muhammad, a 33-year-old woman with two young children in Addis Ababa, told how she had spent three days at sea before being put ashore. As the boat sped off the passengers realised they had landed back in Somalia, not in Yemen, she said.

The local authorities in Puntland claim not to have the resources to tackle the people smuggling. “Our coast is 1,600 km long,’’ said Ahmed Abdi Habsade, Puntland’s interior minister. “We need international help.’’ But locals say it is also a question of will; well-known businessmen with links to the authorities are believed to run the trade.

Yemen’s authorities are almost as powerless to halt the influx. The Ethiopians that are caught are deported, but many soon return to Bossaso. “I will try again,’’ said Younis, who is living with a group of Somalis in the cliffs above the beach at Mareero, waiting for another boat. “I don’t care where I end up. I just want to be able to find a job.’’ — The Guardian