- Hundreds of Somali refugees who crossed the Gulf of Aden in overcrowded smugglers' boats to Yemen said they had fled the extremist policies of the Islamic Courts movement that controls much of Somalia, a UN agency said Friday.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said in a statement that at least 18 Somalis and Ethiopians died during the past eight days and 17 others were still missing after they were dropped from human traffickers' boats off Yemen's coast.
It said those victims were among nearly 1,500 Somalis and Ethiopians who arrived at the Yemen coast during the same period. "Most new arrivals told our teams that they were from southern and central Somalia, where they claim their freedom has been significantly curtailed since the region came under the control earlier this year of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU)," the UNHCR's statement said.
Somalia has been without a functioning central government since 1991. The ICU has taken control of most of southern and central Somalia since its forces seized the capital Mogadishu in June.
"They also cite an increase in inter-tribal and inter-clan conflict and say they fear for their lives," the statement added. The statement quoted Somali refugees as saying that the ICU has ruled that "men must be the sole family breadwinners and that women are expected to stay at home."
Somali migrants often cite insecurity, drought and economic hardship as reasons for leaving the Horn of Africa country.
According to the UNHCR, more than 22,000 people have crossed the Gulf of Aden from Somalia to Yemen this year in smugglers' boats. At least 355 were not able to make it to shore alive, while more than 150 are missing, the UN agency said.
The latest surge began in September when smugglers once again began sailing rickety, overcrowded boats across the Gulf of Aden with the onset of calmer weather.
Smugglers frequently beat their passengers or force them overboard into the deep waters of the Gulf of Aden while still far from shore, sometimes with their hands tied behind their backs.
There are currently over 80,000 registered refugees in Yemen, including around 75,000 Somalis who have arrived since the outbreak of civil strife in Somalia in 1991.
© 2006 DPA