ADEN, Yemen — Amina Saleh Ali's feet were swollen and wrinkled from sitting in water for almost two days. She still had sand under her fingernails, in her eyebrows and along the seams of her blue headscarf. Her eyes were creased with exhaustion and relief.
“I don't know what I will find here,” Ali said on a recent December morning, sitting on a mattress a few hundred meters from the beach on Yemen's southwest coast. “All I want is a good life, that's all I want.”
Two hours earlier, Ali and 49 other men, women and children stepped off a 30-foot, open-air fishing skiff, where they had been crammed, chest to back, for 36 hours, while they were smuggled from Somalia to Yemen, across the lawless, pirate-infested waters of the Gulf of Aden. This group was lucky. Everyone on board survived.
Like roughly 80,000 other Somali and Ethiopian refugees who have arrived on Yemen's southern beaches this year, Ali fled war and poverty in her homeland. Due to worsening instability in Somalia and ongoing drought in Ethiopia, the number of African refugees trafficked across the Gulf of Aden hit record highs in 2009, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Even more are expected next year.
Ali Muthana Hassan, Yemen's vice minister of Foreign Affairs, said the huge number of refugees and illegal immigrants from Africa imposes an economic and security burden on his already-fragile state.
An estimated 750,000 African refugees and illegal African immigrants already live in Yemen, he said. In the past, Yemen has served primarily as a “transit country”— a staging ground where refugees could find illegal passage to the other Gulf states. But as economic opportunities diminish in places like the United Arab Emirates, more refugees are settling permanently in Yemen.
In recent weeks, some African refugees have been caught allegedly fighting as mercenary soldiers for the Shiite rebel group in the north; others are said to be joining ranks with Al Qaeda in the east, Hassan said. “When they arrive, we cannot tell who they are. Are they smugglers? Are they refugees, or Al Qaeda? There are too many of them and our coast guard is too small and too ineffective to check everyone,” he said.
While Yemen had a “moral obligation” to accept asylum seekers, he said, the skyrocketing numbers pose a “major concern, both economically and from a security perspective.”
“Already, many of our own citizens cannot find jobs, and we have limited facilities in the health sector and in schools. These huge numbers of refugees are bringing a burden to Yemen,” he said.
Ali, who thinks she is in her late 20s, first left her home in a village outside Mogadishu over a year ago, after her grandfather, grandmother and sister were killed when fighting broke out between al-Shabaab, Somalia's largest Islamic insurgency group, and the transitional government. “You cannot imagine the horror,” she said. “Life is not worth living over there.”
For nearly 14 months, Ali sat on a street corner begging for change in Bosaso, a port city in Somalia where most human traffickers convene before making the trip to Yemen. Little by little, she squirreled away pennies, then quarters, and then dollars, eventually earning the $120 she paid a smuggler to spirit her across the roughly 200-mile straight to a new life in Yemen.
As the poorest nation in the Arab world — and one that is beset with a war against Shiia rebels in the north, a separatist insurgency in the south, a rising Al Qaeda threat, and widespread malnutrition — Yemen is hardly the Promised Land. But to many of these desperate newcomers, it's their only hope.
“It was my only way out,” Ali said simply. “I could either come here, or die.”
Most people who are trafficked to Yemen leave from either Bosaso in Somalia, or from port cities in Djibouti. Passage through the Gulf of Aden is treacherous, and smugglers must avoid pirates, high seas, Yemeni coast guard vessels and international anti-piracy patrols.
Every year, hundreds of refugees — many of them single women, children and infants — drown when they are thrown overboard by smugglers afraid of getting caught with their human cargo. Others simply fall ill during the passage, where up to 120 people are crammed like cordwood into a fishing skiff with two outboard motors.
“The waves were crashing over us. I was cold and itchy,” said Amina Malin, 15, who made the passage alone. “I was very, very afraid.”
Most often, when the smuggler's boat approaches shore, the refugees simply clamor over the gunnels, accidentally capsizing the boat. Most cannot swim and so drown only a few hundred feet from shore. In 2009, more than 300 bodies of refugees washed up on the beaches in Yemen, according to Rocco Nuri, a spokesman for UNHCR in Aden.
Ali Ghaleb, a coordinator for the Society for Humanitarian Solidarity, works with UNHCR to provide food, clothing and basic medical services to the new arrivals. He also helps oversee three UNHCR-owned cemeteries along Yemen's southern coast. Al-Hamra, a cemetery a few miles from where Ali and her compatriots landed safely, opened three months ago, and has already buried 81 refugees.
The peak season for human trafficking across the Gulf of Aden is from September to December, when the winds are lower than during other seasons. During this time, Ghaleb said, a boatload of new refugees arrives almost every day.
UNHCR runs three reception centers for new arrivals and one long-term refugee camp, al-Kharaz, which is currently home to 15,000 Somalis, Nuri said. Because Ethiopians are not listed as official refugees, they are not allowed to stay at al-Kharaz. Most are granted a 10-day pass to petition for asylum, but many simply disappear into the cities to look for work.
As the political situation in Somalia continues to worsen, humanitarian groups, the Yemeni government, and an increasingly large fleet of human-traffickers are preparing themselves for even more people flocking across the Gulf of Aden next year.
“I couldn't stay in Somalia. If I couldn't come now, I would have come next year, or the next year,” said Howa Khushu, who said her father was killed by al-Shabaab near their home in Mogadishu. “I knew the boat ride would be wicked, and I was very afraid. But what else could I do?”
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