Somalia's port of Bosaso: the bottleneck of East Africa's misery

Report
from Agence France-Presse
Published on 12 Sep 2007
by Lucie Peytermann

BOSASO, Somalia, Sept 12, 2007 (AFP) - As dusk settles on the Gulf of Aden, the ghostly figures of hundreds of migrants start populating the streets of Bosaso in search of a place to sleep before embarking on a hellish boat crossing to Yemen.

Innocuous looking shops in this Somali port are often just a front for a thriving smuggling business, as the Horn of Africa -- mired in poverty and conflict -- keeps regurgitating ever more asylum seekers.

The desolate seaside town of Bosaso is the economic capital of Puntland, an autonomous self-declared state which lies on the jutting tip of the Somali peninsula, facing Yemen.

The kinder weather prevailing in the Gulf of Aden in August and September heralds the influx of thousands ready to test their luck and undertake the perilous sea journey out of Africa.

But even if the waves and gales spare them, health conditions and torture on the dhows often decimate the smugglers' human cargo, which eventually washes up, dead or alive, on the shores of Yemen.

"It's easy to contact the smugglers," says Mohamed Ahmed Oumar, a 19-year-old Ethiopian who made large segments of the harrowing journey from Ethiopia's Amhara region on foot.

He reached Saudi Arabia in 2006 and spent 11 months there before being deported but even a second brush with death could not dissuade him from attempting the crossing again.

While many of the migrants trickling into Bosaso every day yearn for better-paid jobs, a large proportion are also fleeing conflict zones or persecution in their home countries.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, at least 26,000 people crossed the Gulf of Aden illegally in 2006. No fewer than 3,000 arrived in Bosaso from Ethiopia this summer.

While most of the migrants are from Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) for the first time in 2007 reported the presence of Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians among the candidates for immigration.

Most of them are men in their twenties, trying to survive in Bosaso, an arid town where temperatures often soar above 40 degrees C (104 degrees F).

In the scalding afternoon sun, dozens of Eritreans and Ethiopians can be seen roaming the streets aimlessly, half hiding from Puntland policemen who are not really hunting them down.

Once they have reached an agreement with a dhow owner, the migrants are brought into a form of modern-day slavery.

"They are like captives, they are forced to live, eat, sleep in the place where the owner will take them," says Santiago Perez Crespo, DRC programme manager in Bosaso. "Their situation is absolutely outrageous, terrible".

"Living conditions in the locations arranged by smugglers are very precarious. Migrants live in overcrowded open compounds with no sanitation facilities, surrounded by garbage and highly exposed to both disease and abuse," DRC said in a recent report.

Once they reach the Puntland capital after an often perilous flight across war-ravaged desert regions of Eastern Africa, a long purgatory starts during which they have to earn their ticket to Yemen.

The migrants work on the harbour or some of the markets to muster up a measly 100 dollars (72 euros), the common price asked by smugglers to be accepted onboard their ship.

Their illegal status is ignored by the authorities as they have become an integral part of the town's economic fabric.

"It's very cheap labour force, very vulnerable... All these internally-displaced people and migrants are exploited by the population of Bosaso," says Crespo.

The Somalis among them -- mostly families fleeing the relentless cycle of violence in Mogadishu between the Ethiopian-backed government and an Islamist-led insurgency -- find relatively more comfort in Bosaso.

Many are put up by relatives in some of the 19 impoverished camps that shelter an estimated 34,000 people in the area.

"There is an emergency situation in terms of nutrition", especially for children under the age of five, in these camps, says Javier Fernandez Espada from Medecins sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders).

In Boqolka Bush camp, Obah Abdi, a pretty 23-year-old woman from Mogadishu is still recovering from the grueling seven-day journey from the capital.

"The town is full of fighting, and there's no work, that's why I ran away," she says. "I want to go anywhere, I don't want to be in Somalia any more".

Obah says that everything she owned was stolen in Mogadishu and knows she will have to work hard in Bosaso to pay the smugglers.

Fatuma Mohamud, 22, is in a similar situation.

"I was told that you can do everything in Bosaso and find a job. I was tired of seeing people injured and bleeding all the time," she says.

"I will never go back to Mogadishu. If I find enough money, I want to cross to Yemen."

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Copyright (c) 2007 Agence France-Presse
Received by NewsEdge Insight: 09/12/2007 00:14:27

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