Yemen's tragic tide of trafficked humanity

The poorest Arab state is the target of criminal people-smuggling
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There is a tide of death and misery that washes up almost daily on the shores of Yemen. This is the Arab world's poorest nation, a land whose lawlessness has made it a fiefdom of al-Qa'ida, and the launch pad for the recent attempt to bring down a plane over the US. It is also at the centre of a vast people-smuggling industry.

Nearly 80,000 were trafficked by criminal gangs last year. There would have been more, but some of the human cargo die en route. Treated no better than consignments of contraband freight, they perish on the hazardous sea crossing from the Horn of Africa.

In the past year or so, more than a thousand have died, many of them tipped out of boats to drown within sight of the beach. And those who do make it through are helping create one of the Arab world's biggest humanitarian crises – camps and bands of displaced persons who are, to all but the few agencies that care for them, mere human flotsam and jetsam.

For decades, the Red Sea country has been the middle link in an illegal people-smuggling chain that spans five countries. But a recent tightening of controls on borders with Saudi Arabia has led to an unfolding human crisis with thousands of Africans stranded in one of the most inhospitable regions of the country. Tens of thousands of Africans fleeing civil war and destitution in Somalia and Ethiopia have crossed the Gulf of Aden on rickety boats as part of a trafficking industry thought to be worth at least $20m (£13m) annually.

Over the past three years, the number of asylum-seekers and economic migrants arriving on the southern shores of Yemen has almost tripled, from 29,360 in 2007 to 77,802 last year, fuelled by an upswing in violence in Somalia and an increasingly desperate situation in Ethiopia. Yet the journey undertaken by those trying to escape persecution and poverty is among the most dangerous international migration routes in the world.

Jean-Philippe Chauzy, of the International Organisation for Migration, says the situation has reached the point where it is now a "daily tragedy. Once they get on to the boats, people get rifle-butted and they get beaten up. They are forced to jump off the boats when they approach the Yemeni coastline because the smugglers don't want to be captured and arrested by Yemeni security forces, so they push people overboard. They don't [all] know how to swim so they drown. It is an ongoing catalogue of abuse."

More than a thousand people have died attempting the perilous sea journey since the beginning of 2008, including at least 300 people during the first nine months of 2009. But of the two main maritime routes taken, the one leaving from the Somalian port city of Bossaso, the cheapest, is considered the worst. Smugglers operating dhows from the bustling port are notorious for their brutality. A report by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in 2008 revealed the extent of their ruthlessness.

To maximise profits, smugglers were found routinely to overcrowd boats, with double, and sometimes triple, the safety limit. Passengers reported paying between $50 and $80 to board a small boat, and, to get on a faster craft, as much as $150. That is the equivalent of a year's salary in some parts of the region. This is for a voyage that can take between one and three days.

To prevent boats capsizing, smugglers order passengers not to move. But, as the hours drag on, severe muscle ache and pain from sitting in the same position mean people have no choice but to disobey the orders and stretch.

A 50-year-old Somali man who undertook the journey in 2007 explained how the extreme conditions aboard almost drove him to suicide. "They beat you badly on the boat, they have guns and knives. The condition on the boat was really very bad. I preferred to die, because of the beating. We had no water and nothing to eat. It is overcrowded, people are sitting on you, you cannot move. People are sometimes passing urine and stool on you."

Because of the cramped conditions, many male passengers have experienced skin loss from the scrotum. Trauma wounds to the head and back are inflicted by blows from rubber whips, sticks, pipes and fists. A number reported pain in their buttocks and genitals from sitting in seawater and urine-soaked clothes. Women, children and the elderly are not spared either, with rape, sexual harassment and violence reported to MSF.

By far the worst experiences came from those put in the "hold"– small windowless spaces traditionally used for storing fish. More than three-quarters of people interviewed by MSF said passengers had been put in the hold.

A 49-year-old car mechanic from Mogadishu described what the experience was like for him. "They have no mercy. I was thrown in the worst part of the boat – the hold. Whenever I raised my head to breathe, the smugglers beat me with the butts of their rifles."

As harrowing as the sea journey is, for many the most dangerous part of the ordeal comes at the very end. Afraid of being arrested by Yemeni security forces, smugglers routinely force their exhausted and dehydrated passengers to disembark in deep water with poor visibility at night and several hundred metres from the shores. Drowning is commonplace and survivors must live with the memory of losing loved ones within sight of the beach.

One woman recalled the moment she saw her husband's dead body: "As the boat was coming towards the shore, my husband was getting the children ready. He wanted to give them biscuits, but the smugglers threw the biscuits in the sea.

"Then suddenly the smugglers threw him into the sea by grabbing his legs. He resisted, holding on to the boat, but they hit him with knives. Then the smugglers threw my two daughters into the sea. I held on to my youngest son. The children were crying. But, thank God, there was a young man who could swim very well who helped my children to reach the shore. We slept on the shore. In the morning, I saw the dead body of my husband."

For those able to survive the perilous journey, an uncertain future awaits. The Yemeni government has granted Somalis prima facie refugee status since the outbreak of civil war in 1991, meaning they are given access to safe refuge.

For most, this means a life fending for themselves in urban centres. For others, it means a life confined to the Kharaz refugee camp, a makeshift colony of tents set in the scorching semi-arid desert 100 miles west of Aden, which is now home to approximately 17,000 refugees.

Ethiopians face a different set of challenges. Despite having signed the 1951 Convention on Refugees, Yemen refuses entry to them, and those found face the possibility of deportation. Those who reach the shore must therefore embark on a land journey of more than 250 miles from Bab al-Mandab to the border crossing with Saudi Arabia, to search for work there or in the other neighbouring, wealthy Gulf states.

A recent crackdown on borders with Saudi Arabia earlier this month has resulted in a build-up of stranded Ethiopians.

The International Organisation for Migration has appealed for $1m to help repatriate stranded Ethiopians, but conditions for those still stranded remain dire.

"The fact that the border region is less permeable than it used to be means that these migrants who are trying to get into Saudi Arabia are now really stuck in a dead end," says Mr Chauzy. "They have no money, they have no papers, they can't go forward or backwards. They are basically marooned in the border region. It's a very inhospitable region. They are literally left there to rot."

But for all the trauma endured by passengers fleeing the Horn of Africa, the massive influx of refugees in Yemen represents a burden for a country ranked third in the world for the highest levels of malnutrition. More than half (58 per cent) of its children aged under five are stunted, and one in 10 children is acutely malnourished. The rate of unemployment stands at around 35 per cent.

With the country's food and water resources already stretched to the limit and more than 300,000 internally displaced persons struggling to survive following internal conflicts, the lucrative people-smuggling industry presents a double-edged sword: traffickers may profit but increasing numbers of refugees and economic migrants present a strain on the local economy of this impoverished nation.