Relief SCENE:Refugees
At Least 16 Dead On Smuggling Route
Claims International Warship Refused To Help Desperate Somalis
While Somalia Report earlier this week revealed a new people-smuggling route taking Somalis fleeing conflict to South Africa via the Kenyan port of Mombasa, the traditional route across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen continues to claim lives.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Friday that sixteen had drowned and five were missing, most of them Somalis, as they attempted to cross the stretch of water.

On Wednesday, a boat carrying 45 Somali refugees from Mogadishu and Hiran sank just two kilometers off the Yemeni coast. Fifteen drowned and five are missing, while the rest swam ashore and were received by UNCHR. The boat left Bosaso in Puntland, a regular departure point, on Monday, and immediately hit rough seas, forcing the passengers to bail out water during the crossing. As is common practice, the smugglers refused to approach the Yemeni shore despite the precarious condition of the ship, which ultimately sank.

During their ordeal at sea, survivors said that a cargo vessel and an international warship – one of many sent to the Gulf of Aden to combat piracy – came close to the boat but ignored their screams for assistance. However, as the boat was moving in heavy waves, it was not clear if the passing vessels actually saw the refugees' attempts to signal for help. UNHCR nonetheless called the alleged incident "disturbing" and appealed to shipmasters to rescue any seafarers in distress.

"Any boat has an obligation under international maritime law as well as international human rights and humanitarian law to help any ship or persons in distress," Edward Leposky, a UN spokesperson based in Aden, told Somalia Report. "There is a long-standing tradition of ships honoring the principle of rescue at sea and UNHCR would like to see this upheld."

Wing Commander Paddy O'Kennedy, spokesman for the European Union Naval Force Somalia, one of the organizations operating anti-piracy missions in the area, said he had not heard of the alleged incident but was sure that no warship had deliberately ignored seafarers in need of help.

"We are obliged to assist ... we have done it in the past and will do it in the future if there is an issue of safety of lives at sea," he told Somalia Report. "I can't speak for NATO and the Combined Maritime Forces, but I can guarantee any naval vessel in the world would react in the same way."

In another incident, a boat carrying 77 Ethiopians and two Somalis pulled up short off the coast of Yemen, and the smugglers forced their passengers into the sea while in deep waters – once again a practice regularly undertaken by unscrupulous smugglers wishing to avoid detection by the Yemeni coastguard. An Ethiopian man drowned during the long swim to shore.

"Equally, UNHCR condemns the smugglers who overcrowd unsafe ships and set out in dangerous weather condition purely for profit with no consideration for the lives and well-being of their passengers," Leposky said.

At least 89 people drowned in the Gulf of Aden in January and February of this year, compared to 15 during the whole of 2010, UNCHR said. The agency blamed an increase in violence and inhumane treatment by smugglers of their human cargo.