Somali refugees brave sea passage to escape insurgency

Migrants and asylum-seekers in Boosaaso, Somalia, put their lives on the line to travel to Yemen in tiny fishing boats.

Mousa's tipping point came three weeks ago. After months of street battles in Mogadishu, only three men from his militia unit were still alive. "My elder brother called me from Yemen and told me: 'come!' " says Mousa.

The journey from Mogadishu to Yemen is increasingly difficult these days. But for those like Mousa who are desperate enough to make the trip, the first stop is Boosaaso, Somalia's major shipping hub on the north coast. After arriving, many aspiring emigrants settle in with their clan groups, look for casual work in the port, and set up homes in flimsy shacks made of sticks and cardboard. Others – more than a thousand people every month – make the treacherous crossing to Yemen over the Gulf of Aden in tiny, overcrowded fishing boats.

More than 320,000 men, women, and children – almost a third of the country's urban population – have taken flight this year, according to the United Nations. In the messy aftermath of the Islamic Courts' Union January defeat, Somalia's capital has fractured into small, rival armies as Islamic insurgents and clan warlords compete to usurp Abdullahi Yusuf's transitional government, which is backed by Ethiopian troops. In the midst of the fighting, Ugandan peacekeepers are failing to stem a growing civilian exodus from what amounts to the worst fighting since the outbreak of civil war in 1991.

"It's a punishing journey and it can be fatal. The dhows are overloaded and they often capsize, or they're fired on by the Yemeni coast guard," says Santiago Perez of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), referring to traditional Arab fishing boats. "But increasing numbers seem willing to risk their lives as the situation in Mogadishu gets worse."

The engine behind this mass exodus: Yemen's guarantee of automatic refugee status for Somalis. There are now 84,000 registered Somali refugees in Yemen, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, but many more don't register. They buy forged ID cards and wash cars to make money, or they continue heading north to the Saudi border.

Night after night, on remote beaches on the outskirts of Boosaaso, hundreds of Somalis and increasing numbers of Ethiopian economic migrants are herded onto fishing dhows in the darkness. In two or three days time, if they are lucky, they will arrive in Yemen. Mousa's $100 fare buys him hunger, thirst, cramps, and beatings. He will have to urinate where he sits.

But Mousa (all names have been changed) says he is going anyway. "I know the dangers I'm facing but I can't have a good life here in Boosaaso and if I go back to Mogadishu, a bullet will kill me. I will die one day, so now I'm in the hands of Allah. Only he knows if I will survive this journey."

When Mousa sets sail to Arabia, he will trust his life to men like Mohammed. A former fisherman, Mohammed turned to people-smuggling after Siad Barre's government collapsed in 1991, imploding the economy and leading to protracted clan warfare.

Now Mohammed earns $600 a month crewing smuggling boats, but he says he finds it hard to save money. He is agitated and bony, and his clothes are dirty. Many smugglers are addicts, and work to feed their addictions to marijuana and khat, a mild stimulant.

Mohammed's is a messy business, and the work has deadened him to his own cruelty.

"If the passengers move, we hit them," he says simply. Once, his engine broke and the boat drifted for days. Several passengers died of starvation and dehydration. Sometimes, migrants suffocate in the boat's hold because they're so tightly packed. "We throw the bodies overboard to lighten our load," he says.

The crew's first concern is always their own survival, as when Mohammed's boat comes under fire from Yemeni patrol boats. To make a quick getaway, they often push passengers at gun-point into deep water.

"I'm used to it now and I don't care if they die. They know what they're letting themselves in for," he says.

Boosaaso's smuggling trade provides several hundred jobs in this competitive bread-line economy. Employment fluctuates according to demand, but right now business is booming. There are 10 or 12 boats running to Yemen, and the price of passage has doubled to $100 during the last six months.

With about one hundred passengers in each boat, the smugglers rake in $10,000 a journey, turning an astonishing profit margin – even after they've paid off their crew. But such incredible wealth is invisible in this fragile, postconflict town. "The money is most likely transferred abroad," says DRC's Perez.

The Governor of Boosaaso complains that the international community has ignored repeated requests for patrol boats, radios, and training. As a result, the authorities' relationship with the smugglers is a constant cat-and-mouse game. Police informers infiltrate the trafficking network, but the smugglers have allies within the police force, too. Boosaaso's long and isolated coastline can't be patrolled extensively by an administration with few resources, and the smugglers always seem one step ahead.

An intensive crackdown last fall saw moderate success, forcing touts out of the busy central market. The traders adapted quickly, keeping their passengers in virtual detention in private houses until they had recruited enough bodies to fill their boats. But the crackdown, it seems, was only temporary, and the trade is back out in the open. "Everyone knows who the smugglers are," says one local resident. "Everyone knows they're killers."

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