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Crossing the Gulf of Aden

Yemen: Refugees crossing the Gulf of Aden. A film reporting how thousands of people risk their lives to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict, violence, drought and poverty. (2008. Running time: 10 minutes)


Thousands of people risk their lives every year to cross the Gulf of Aden to escape from conflict, violence, drought and poverty. During 2007, almost 30,000 took the dangerous voyage to seek relative safety in Yemen. Due to the escalation of the conflict in Somalia and the food crisis in parts of the Horn of Africa, more and more people are joining the already large refugee and migrant population in Yemen. During the first five months of 2008 over 20,000 arrived, more than double the number of arrivals in the same period last year.

The boat trip is fraught with danger; the smugglers are notorious for their brutality. Fatality rates are very high; for 2007, it is estimated that at least 5% of those setting out on the dangerous journey did not reach the shores of Yemen alive. People arrive exhausted, many of them ill and emotionally shattered. They told MSF harrowing stories of death and survival. Boats designed to carry 30 to 40 people at the most are packed with over 100 passengers, many of them stuck in small windowless storage places in the hold. People are forced to sit in the same position without moving and are, in the large majority of cases, deprived of food and water.

Conditions are so harsh that deaths during the trip were confirmed from one third of the boats. The main causes were severe beatings, lack of food and water and suffocation from being in the hold of the boats. Several interviewees also reported cases where the smugglers threw passengers, including young children, overboard. Also cases of suicide were reported where passengers jumped ship out of desperation and fear.

Arrival on the Yemeni shores is exceedingly hazardous, as the smugglers take extreme measures to avoid being detected by the Yemeni security forces. The majority of the boats don’t come close to the shore and people are forced to disembark in deep water. As many people cannot swim, deaths from drowning are frequent.

The majority of those crossing were aware of the risks, but told MSF that they had no choice. For them taking the dangerous trip does not constitute an option among several, but their only survival strategy to escape violence and destitution.


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Photograph of exhausted Somali refugees on the beach. Yemen, October 2007.

Exhausted Somali refugees on the beach. Yemen, October 2007.

© Médecins Sans Frontières

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Producer: Médecins Sans Frontières, Spain

Filmed: June 2008

Last updated Jun 09, 2011