Médecins Sans Frontières speaks out about the violent conditions faced by thousands of Somalis and Ethiopians crossing the Gulf of Aden

On the occasion of the presentation of its report "No Choice", MSF calls for an increase in assistance to refugees and migrants fleeing from war and hunger

Thousands of Somali and Ethiopian risk their lives every year to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict and extreme poverty. The trip is fraught with danger, as people are exposed to violence from the smugglers and receive little assistance upon their arrival in Yemen. In its report "No Choice" MSF documents the conditions of the perilous journey and calls for increased assistance for the thousands of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants fleeing their home countries.

Due to the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the drought affecting the Horn of Africa, the numbers of new arrivals are increasing: in 2007, according to the UN, 30,000 people embarked on the dangerous trip; during the first five months of 2008 over 20,000  arrived in Yemen. Many of them never made it: in 2007 over 1,400 dead and missing were reported; so far, in 2008, 400 did not reach the shores of Yemen alive.

The report, released on the eve of World Refugee Day, is based on over 250 testimonies gathered by the MSF teams in Yemen since September 2007. The refugees arrive exhausted, many of them sick and emotionally shattered. Boats of 8 to 10-meters designed for 30 or 40 people at the most are packed with over 100 passengers. People are forced to sit in the same position without moving during the two or three days of the journey and are, in most cases, deprived of water and food.

The smugglers are extremely brutal, beating anyone who dares to move.  Conditions are even worse for people stuck in the holds of the boat  - tiny, windowless spaces meant for storage. Twenty people or more  are crowded in these spaces, literally sitting on top of each other. Conditions are so harsh that deaths during the trip were reported from one third of the boats. The main causes were severe beatings, lack of food and water and suffocation from being in the hold. Several of those interviewed also reported cases in which the smugglers threw passengers, including children, overboard.

Landing on the Yemen coast is very dangerous: to avoid being caught by the military, many boats arrive at night and do not come close to the shore. The smugglers force the passengers to jump into deep water. Many people drown: they cannot swim, are unable to move because of numbness or are disoriented and cannot find the coast.

Most of those interviewed are aware of the risks, but told MSF that they had no choice, this being their only survival strategy to escape from violence and destitution. For those who reach the shores of Yemen after the perilous trip, the plight is not over. Yemen is a country with limited resources and assistance is scarce. "To date, humanitarian response has been inadequate. More international assistance is urgently needed and donor countries should commit themselves politically and financially. The response capacity of those who provide assistance to the refugees needs to be increased and more organisations should intervene", explains Alfonso Verdú, MSF General Coordinator in Yemen.

Médecins Sans Frontières opened a project on the southern coast of Yemen in September 2007 to provide medical, psychological and humanitarian assistance to the new arrivals. A mobile team provides first aid and assistance on the beach and MSF runs an emergency health centre in the Ahwar Reception Centre (ARC). In eight months, MSF has provided assistance to over 6,000 persons.


Report "No Choice"
Rosalie Ann R. Reyes (Psychologist) : Sharing of Mission in Yemen