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Desperate Somalis on the wild sea to Yemen

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Ibrahim Younis MSF has just started a new project in Yemen providing assistance to immigrants arriving in huge numbers on the southern coast. Most of the migrants come from Somalia or Ethiopia, crossing the Golf of Aden in very difficult conditions.

Since the beginning of 2007, estimates are that close to 14,000 people have tried to reach the coast of Yemen while more than 350 have died in the attempt and 272 remain missing.

This is an extract from the diary of Ibrahim Younis, MSF Head of Mission in Yemen. For the past three months we have been on an exploratory mission in southern Yemen; our objective is to identify the medical needs of African migrants who, coming from Somalia, ride the deadly sea in the Gulf of Aden trying to reach the shores of Yemen in search for a better life.

In June and July, while gathering information in the country before going to the southern coast, we heard many hard stories from the immigrants. But still, when we arrived, when confronted with the huge number of boats arriving day and night to the coast, the feeling was not the same. It's hard to see people risking their lives this way.

Children, women and men all left Somalia and Ethiopia looking for a better life and safety in the Arab lands. The stories we hear from the migrants are appalling. The trip takes three to four days between Bossassu, in Somalia, and a 400 kilometers stretch of land between Bir Ali and Ahwar, on the Yemeni coast.

The migrants usually travel on small fishing boats with a capacity of 30 people each but filled with 90 to 100 persons - three times the normal capacity. To avoid capsizing, passengers are forced to sit down and not move, not even to urinate, for at least three days; sometimes they are tied to each other. They are not allowed to carry anything with them during the journey, sometimes not even food and very few water. Some don't survive the harsh conditions and die during the voyage; the dead bodies are simply thrown overboard.

As the smugglers are constantly hunted by the Yemeni security forces along the coast, the passengers often have to jump into the sea in the middle of the night before they reach the shore. Some of the migrants can swim, others cannot ; and even if they could, sometimes they don't know which direction to go since it is almost dark.

Ahwar, South Yemen. September 15, 2007. 00.34 a.m.

One of our network connections has just sent us an urgent message asking us to come as soon as possible to Hessin Bel Eid area, 34 km from our base in Ahwar. One of the four health posts we have set up along the coast between Ahwar and Bir Ali is located in Hessin Bel Eid. We respond to the emergency call sending two cars equipped with food, water, a medical team and all necessary first aid items as well as clothes and blankets.

It's dark when we arrive and we don't see anything. We guide ourselves by the torches of the Yemeni coastal guards. The soldiers are in panic; we can see and feel signs of relief in their attitude when we arrive. They immediately ask us to take care of 94 very weak and suffering survivors.

They arrived on two boats around 7 p.m. but, due to communication problems, nobody could reach us before. At the same time we are asked to take care of the dead people who are on the beach, not far from the coastal guard post. We immediately provided emergency medical treatment to the survivors and carried out a screening to identify the weakest; then we distributed food, water and clothes. After being forced to sit close to each other without moving for three days, the most common symptoms seen are signs of dehydration, physical abuses and muscular pain.

We also see signs of Post Traumatical Stress Disorder. They are scared and need guarantees of safety; for that we have a team of counselors. Apart from the survivors, we also have to take care of the dead. This is the hardest part. We walk about 1.5 km and soon we come to the bodies, of all ages, scattered everywhere; at night they look like rocks. When we get closer we see that crabs have already started feeding on the dead bodies. With the help of some volunteers, we managed to lift them to higher grounds, cover the bodies that are naked. Then we start to discuss with the authorities what is the legal framework to bury the 30 dead bodies.

Same day: 08.00 a.m.

A team from a refugee agency has come to take the migrants to the Mayfa reception center, 80 km away. There they will be registered and then sent to the refugee camp in Kharaz area. Reflecting back on all these events, it is striking how strong these people are. They share their fears and weaknesses with us, but in every moment they keep their pride.

Their stories are so horrible they make you shiver. Most of them say they left Somalia because of the war, but they didn't expect the trip would be so difficult. Some of them told me: "We prefer the war to the boat trip. If only we could find something to eat in Somalia." It's clear that this massive arrival of migrants generates an excessive burden for the already barely functioning Yemeni local infrastructures.

After such a long and dangerous trip, migrants hardly receive any assistance when they finally make it to the Yemeni shores. For the time being, MSF's intervention provides at least the most urgent, life saving assistance.