Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1337, (23 - 29 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Refugees die off Yemen

A boat carrying Somali refugees was targeted off the coast of Yemen last week, killing many of those on board

Yemeni fishermen carry the body of a Somali refugee, killed in attack by a helicopter while travelling  in a vessel off the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen (photos: Reuters)
Yemeni fishermen carry the body of a Somali refugee, killed in attack by a helicopter while travelling in a vessel off the Red Sea port of Hodeidah, Yemen (photos: Reuters)

The UN Security Council discussed in a closed session on 17 March the bombing of a Somali refugee boat by an Apache fighter off the Yemeni coast near the Bab Al-Mandab Straits. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) reported that 42 Somali refugees were killed in the attack on the boat that was believed to be heading to Sudan.

After the attack, the boat docked on the Yemeni coast at Hadida, a port which is under the control of the Yemeni Houthi rebels and their allies which have accused Saudi Arabia of targeting it. A Saudi-led coalition has been waging war against the Houthis (Yazidi Shiites) and their ally former Yemeni President Ali Abdalla Saleh since March 2015.

The areas under Houthi control, most of what was previously known as Northern Yemen, are the targets of bombings by the Arab Coalition that supports the internationally recognised Yemeni government led by President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi. The latter has been unable to return to the capital Sanaa as this has been under the control of the Houthis since September 2014.

The government of Somalia has protested against last week’s bombing of the refugee boat and demanded that Saudi Arabia investigate the incident. The office of Somali Prime Minister Hassan Ali Khairi issued a statement saying that it condemned “the unjust killing of Somalis off the Yemeni coastline”.

According to the statement by the Somali government and the IOM, a large number of women and children were among the victims. Somali Foreign Minister Abdel-Salam Omar demanded that “our partners in the Saudi-led Arab Coalition investigate the incident.”

Somalia severed ties with Iran after Saudi diplomatic missions in Tehran and Mashhad were attacked after Riyadh executed a Shiite cleric early last year. Somalia is a member of the Arab Coalition fighting the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Coalition spokesman Ahmed Al-Asiri, also an adviser to the Saudi defence minister, denied that operations had taken place in the area on the day of the sinking. The location and circumstances of the attack in an area that sees near daily major military operations are still unclear. However, the US magazine Foreign Policy has reported that Saudi Arabia is the largest possessor in the region of US-made Apache fighters and that the Houthis have almost no air force.

Reuters quoted a Yemeni coastguard as saying that “the Somali refugees were on their way from Yemen to Sudan when an Apache military jet bombed them near the Bab Al-Mandab Straits.”

The Yemeni authorities in Hadida questioned one Yemeni survivor who was on the boat and is likely to be a human trafficker. He said the boat was heading to Sudan to flee from Yemen which is torn by war, according to a report in the UK Independent newspaper.

According to the International Red Cross, the boat was attacked at 9pm, and during the attack passengers shouted to indicate that it was a civilian boat. However, a helicopter then joined in the attack.

The UK Guardian newspaper reported that the survivors had said that “we tried to flash our lights and shout, but they did not believe us until all these people were killed,” a reference to the dozens of bodies that were later washed up on the coast.

The Arab Coalition has accused the Houthis of acquiring weapons from large boats believed to be associated with Iran. It is concerned that the Houthis have been using small boats to attack its naval forces, as happened to a UAE vessel a few months ago.

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said the majority of the victims were registered refugees and were carrying documents. Some 80 refugees survived, including 39 who were injured, according to Yemeni medical sources speaking to Reuters. Foreign Policy reported that some 140 people were on the boat.

Yemen and Somalia have been living through difficult times for years. The UN agencies UNICEF and FAO have warned that both countries are now in danger of famine because of the war in Yemen and the drought in Somalia. In Yemen, the war against the Houthis and Saleh has killed 10,000 Yemenis and forced millions to leave their homes, causing food shortages in a country where much of the food needed to feed the population is imported.

According to a UN report, 17 million Yemenis will need urgent humanitarian assistance if the war continues. The report also warned that Somalia is on the verge of famine, along with South Sudan which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 but has been embroiled in a civil war for nearly two years.

According to the UNHCR, some 500,000 Somalis were in Yemen when the war began, having fled the fighting at home since 1990 when the late Somali president Siad Barre was deposed. It warned that Somali refugees in Yemen would be forced to move again if the war continues.

Somalia has had no central government since Barre’s overthrow, and the country is divided into three states, namely Somalia, which is recognised internationally, and the self-declared republics of Somaliland and Puntland, which are not recognised regionally or internationally.

Yemen and Somalia were two of the poorest countries in the world even before the wars. They are also strongholds of two terrorist groups, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in central Yemen and the Somali Shabab Al-Mujahideen. Both countries experienced civil wars or domestic armed conflicts before armed regional involvement began in the shape of the Arab Coalition in Yemen and African forces (mostly from Ethiopia and Kenya, as well as Uganda and Burundi) in Somalia.

Last week’s incident highlights illegal migration from the Horn of Africa countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea to the oil-rich Gulf countries, or Sudan, and then to Egypt on the way to Europe. According to IOM sources quoted by the Guardian, “the Gulf of Aden and Bab Al-Mandab Straits are now busy with illegal boat traffic.”

A few years ago, the Gulf of Aden was plagued with Somali pirate attacks that threatened oil transportation, and several countries sent naval vessels to secure global trade through this strategic waterway. Experts estimate that four million barrels of oil travel through the Bab Al-Mandab Straits every day between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea on the way to Europe and the US.

The continuing war in Yemen and division and terrorism in Somalia are likely to continue to fuel illegal migration in the area and compound repercussions for refugees in both countries.

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