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Over troubled waters

It's a journey of horrors, the kind you would only make if you were truly desperate. But in the failed state of Somalia there are a lot of desperate people. Up to a quarter of a million Somalis are now living in Yemen after undertaking the harrowing boat journey across the Gulf of Aden. An unknown number of their compatriots have died on the way. Shortly before Espen Rasmussen's visit in November 2008, a team from Medecins sans Frontieres found 39 dead bodies on the shore in a period of less than 48 hours.

Mariners, so the headlines tell us, have come to describe the treacherous waters of the gulf as the 'gates of hell'. In this lawless sea, two groups thrive: pirates and smugglers. In the first ten months of 2008, 40,520 Somali refugees have been deposited alive in Yemen, according to the UNHCR. At least 873 have drowned or are missing. And the refugees recount terrible stories of the journey. The smugglers are violent. Beating is common. The small boats, meant for eight or ten people, are filled with a hundred or more. And because of the limited space, the refugees are forced to sit without moving, drinking or eating for two or three days.

Samer Haddadin, a UNHCR Protection Officer, says that 'stories of rape, killings and torture during the journey are normal. Many of the refugees have big scars on their bodies when they arrive on the beaches. This is because they are forced to urinate on each other. One woman told us this: 'The smuggler was tired of a small child crying. He took the child and threw it into the sea. It drowned.' Another refugee on board the boat reacted to this brutal treatment. He was shot and killed by the smuggler.'Mustafa Rashid Hassan is one of the lucky ones. 'The boat trip cost 100 dollars. We were 140 men, women and children in the boat^, he says. 'The smugglers were beating us with sticks. We did not have water, and we were thirsty. When we were close to the Yemen coast, the smugglers commanded us to jump into the sea. The boat overturned, and around 40 of the people in the boat drowned, among them four small children. I saved myself because I can swim.'

The 20 year old is at a reception centre run by the UNHCR. Here, the refugees are provided with water, food and shelter for a few days, before they set off for the camps or the cities. Yemen is the poorest state in the Arab world, with high unemployment, rapid population growth and dwindling water resources. Yet for Somalis like Mustafa, it offers hope. 'I want to feel safe. And I wish to have a job. My brother made the same journey in 2003, but he drowned. I hope God gives me a good life.'
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