|Join Our Mailing List|
Exceedingly difficult living conditions in southern and central Somalia have caused tens of thousands of refugees to transit through Puntland, a semi-autonomous region of Somalia, to board dhows for a risky journey across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen in order to escape fighting, al-Shabaab militants, rape, starvation, and poverty.
According to the Puntland government and local non-governmental organizations, ten thousands of refugees from Somalia and Ethiopia make their way to the Puntland smuggling hubs of Mareero, Qaw and Elayo, all located in Bari region, to begin the perilous journey to Yemen. On one trip last year, 54 Somalis drowned after their boat capsized.
Smugglers charge $100 to take each passenger from Puntland to the Yemeni coast, but the number of migrants that actually make it Yemen, however, is typically far fewer than those that set out. Refugees who have survived reported that smugglers have forced their passengers to jump overboard before reaching the destination.
"People take this dangerous trip to escape the endless fighting in Somalia. But when the get to sea they find it is far more dangerous. Smugglers often kill or force them at knife-point to jump into the sea off if the boat gets too heavy," Mohamed Yare, a resident in Bosaso, told Somalia Report.
The traffickers' first interest is for themselves and confirmed they will protect their asset before the lives of the migrants.
"We filled nearly 90 migrants into our small boat, but it started sinking. The refugees were shooting, we were shooting and many people died," said a former smuggler from Elayo.
A survivor of another transit explained the ruthless conditions on board the smugglers' boats, in an interview with Somalia Report.
In addition to potential death at sea, the illegal immigrants also report being robbed, raped and harassed by the traffickers. Many are also forced to swim the last few miles of their journey.
"When their boats reach a few miles off Yemen’s ports of Shabwa, Aden or Abyen, the smugglers order everybody off," said one survivor who asked not to be identified.
Ahmed Jamacow, a 24 year old Somali, was working as waiter in Bosaso for six months to earn enough money to pay the smugglers to take him to Yemen. After paying his $100 fee, he was on the way to what he thought would be an easy journey.
"We got on a small boat, but a few hours later we hit some large waves. The smugglers demanded that two people jump overboard. When nobody volunteered, they killed two men and threw them overboard. The rest of us were taken to Aden," explained Ahmed.
Pirate - Smuggler Connection
Local officials report that approximately 130 migrants depart from Bari region every night, which begs the question of a pirate - smuggler connection. With so many people transiting the area, why aren't pirates attacking and robbing the migrants or the smugglers themselves?
The answer, locals and officials told Somalia Report, is that the two criminal groups work hand-in-hand with the smugglers loaning their boats to pirates. In return, pirates pay the smugglers a percentage of the ransom they receive from a hijacked vessel.
"They have a strong relationship and invest in each other. When the pirates spend all their money and want to go back the sea without having boats, they borrow smugglers' boats on the condition that the pirates will give them 15% of a ransom if the boat is used in a successful hijacking. Sometime they sell the boats to the pirates," said Lasqorey Governor Yusuf Jama Dibad.
Locals also confirmed the connection.
"You're talking about connection, but we believe they are one in the same. Smugglers are pirates just as pirates are smugglers. You can't distinguish them from one another because both are criminals. The traffickers smuggle people and the pirates attack vessels to demand ransom," Liibaan Dhere, a well-known businessman in Bosaso, told Somalia Report.
Abdullahi Hassan Qulub, a traditional elder in Bosaso, said, "people that live near the coastline report the smugglers and pirates have a strong connection. They exchange equipment because both groups are armed."
Pirates in Harardhere also confirmed they work with smugglers, but the smugglers who spoke to Somalia Report denied any connection to the pirates.
Puntland Fights Back
Since the drought and famine ravaged Somalia last year, the number of immigrants has skyrocketed as has the number of human traffickers, according to a Puntland police officer who spoke to Somalia Report on the condition of anonymity. To combat this, Puntland is fighting back.
"Yes, we know the people who are smuggling. The immigrants are not at fault because they escaped chronic fighting in their regions, but the smugglers are criminals. We fought and will continue to fight them. We have so many boats so they ran away after we attacked their bases in Mareero and Elayo," said the officer.
Puntland Minister of Port and Sea Transport Said Mohamed Raage confirmed to Somalia Report that human smuggling has increased since drought last year.
"Yes, human trafficking has increased in Puntland. We declared that humans smuggling is illegal, but they have no base so it is difficult to arrest them. When we get the information about smugglers and their bases, we will arrest them and seize their equipment. It looks endless because smugglers are spread across the Puntland coastline, but we will get them,’’ said the minster.
The minister added that they are planning to fight smugglers until they are wiped out our region, as well as pirates, and recently deployed the new Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) to Qaw to conduct anti-smuggling and anti-piracy operations.