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While most news attention, especially in Europe, has focused on African migrants and refugees coming to Europe via the Mediterranean, the tragedy unfolding in the Gulf of Aden has largely been ignored by the international community and Western media.

Every year, thousands of people risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape conflict, violence, drought and poverty. Due to the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the food crisis in parts of the Horn of Africa, more and more people will join the already-large refugee and migrant population in Yemen. During the first five months of 2008, over 20,000 refugees arrived in Yemen – more than double the number of arrivals in the same period last year.

Lacking safe and legal alternatives to leave their country, refugees and migrants have to use the services of smugglers to cross the Gulf. The boat trip is fraught with danger – the smugglers are notorious for their brutality. Fatality rates are high – for 2007, it is estimated that at least five per cent of those setting out on the dangerous journey did not reach the shores of Yemen alive.

Conditions are so harsh that deaths occur in one-third of all the boat trips crossing the Gulf of Aden, from severe beatings, lack of food and water and suffocation from being in the hold of the boats. There have also been reported cases of smugglers throwing passengers, including young children, overboard.

Arrival on the Yemeni shores is exceedingly hazardous, as the smugglers take extreme measures to avoid being detected by the Yemeni security forces. The boats stop far from the shore, forcing the refugees to disembark in deep water. As many people, especially those coming from the interior of Ethiopia or Somalia, cannot swim, deaths from drowning are frequent.

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