Africans brave perilous sea in search of jobs

The beaches of Bossasso, Somalia, are the start for one of the world's largest and most dangerous human smuggling operations.
The beaches of Bossasso, Somalia, are the start for one of the world's largest and most dangerous human smuggling operations. Shashank Bengali / MCT

BOSSASSO, Somalia — This is where Africa ends.

In this decrepit port city at the easternmost tip of the continent, thousands of Africans are waiting to get out — to escape from the unrelenting war of Somalia and the hopeless privation of Ethiopia for the glimmer of a better life, 200 miles away across a roiling, shark-infested sea.

Their destination is Yemen, gateway to the rich countries of the Persian Gulf, where they dream of jobs and security. But getting there requires a journey in many ways more harrowing than what they left behind.

Putting their lives in the hands of smugglers who cram them by the scores into small, motorized fishing boats ill-equipped for the high seas, hundreds of migrants each year don't survive the illegal crossing. Many die of dehydration during the two-night journey, their bodies thrown overboard by smugglers to lighten the load. Others are weak swimmers who drown if their boat fails or trying to swim the last few hundred yards to shore.

The reward for making it? It’s rarely better than a $2-a-day job at a car wash or factory in Yemen or Saudi Arabia and the constant threat of deportation — a familiar kind of poverty and fear in a new and unfamiliar land.

Still, the sandy streets and alleyways of Bossasso are lined with people who are ready to trade one hellish struggle for another.

Last year, at least 29,000 made the journey across the Gulf of Aden, according to the U.N. refugee agency, which calls this one of the world’s biggest and most neglected illegal migration routes.

A similar number are expected to cross this year, including many repeat travelers who know the risks. They’ll pay between $50 and $100 to the smugglers, whose boats leave far from town and under the cover of night, easily evading local authorities.

Safe passage isn't assured.

“Imagine somebody who hates himself, who puts himself on a path leading to his own death, but he can do nothing about it,” said Kasahoun Gorabat, a migrant from the harsh desert of eastern Ethiopia, describing a journey he's made five times in six years.

The rail-thin 26-year-old was still a teenager when he left his family and set out for the Persian Gulf for the first time. Each time he crossed, he found work for a few months, only to be discovered and deported.

On his third trip, Gorabat recalled, smugglers forced him and about 100 other passengers at gunpoint into the heaving sea more than a half-mile from the Yemeni shore, where the coast guard is notorious for firing on the boats. In the dark he swam for his life, and when he reached the beach, he collapsed on the sand, exhausted, with a few dozen others.

When they woke at dawn, they found that the tide had crawled up the beach and dragged 21 weary travelers, mostly women, back into the shallow water, where they drowned.

“That was the worst thing I have seen,” he said. “You always see a few dead bodies floating in the water when you’re going across. When you say it’s a very good journey, it means only five or six people died.”

Last year, according to U.N. figures, at least 328 people died making the crossing. Another 310 went missing and are presumed dead.

This isn't the only departure point for Africans taking to the sea in search of economic opportunity. At the other end of the continent, tens of thousands of West Africans have attempted the longer and often more perilous journey on the Atlantic to Europe in recent years, until European and North African authorities launched a crackdown this year.

The smaller migration to Yemen, a labor route for centuries, draws far less attention. But U.N. officials believe that worsening conditions in Ethiopia and southern Somalia — where fighting between government forces and insurgents in the capital, Mogadishu, has left many hundreds dead this year — could bring even more migrants to Bossasso.

Traditionally, the migrants are unmarried Ethiopian and Somali men in their 20s and 30s. This year, aid workers for the first time found Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians making the trip, a sign that the transit route is growing more established.

“The young people are desperate. They know the dangers, and they’re willing to risk everything,” said Santiago Perez Crespo of the Danish Refugee Council, an aid agency working in Bossasso.

In peak season, from September through April when the waters are calmest, migrants said that smugglers load as many as 120 people onto boats designed to hold about 40. Passengers don’t bring luggage, because there’s no room. Instead, everyone squeezes into spaces about 10 inches across, with the least fortunate shoved below deck, where it’s difficult to breathe.

The journey takes 28 to 36 hours, when things go smoothly. Often, they don’t.

Ali Said Mohammed, a 25-year-old Ethiopian who’s crossed to Yemen four times, recalled a time when a storm overturned his boat, tossing everyone into the water. They remained adrift for four days until a fishing vessel appeared and pulled the survivors to safety. By then, 80 of the 120 travelers had drowned.

“Anything bad can happen,” Mohammed said, rattling off the near-disasters that he's survived. “The engine’s not working, the wind is too strong, the motor overheats, water gets into the engine.”

For the dozens of smugglers operating here, demand is booming, so there’s little incentive to carry fewer passengers or invest in sturdier boats.

“We take care to minimize the risk of death. But it does happen," said Mohammed, a boyish 34-year-old who’s run a smuggling business for five years and agreed to be interviewed on the condition that his last name be withheld to shield him from local authorities.

During a clandestine meeting in his car, far from the center of town, Mohammed’s cell phone rang at least 20 times in a half-hour. It was a few days into peak season and his two boats were filling up fast.

“The customers are so many, especially when there is conflict,” Mohammed said. “But we don’t take pleasure in that. We see it as our job to take people to a place where they can live, eat and survive. We are kind of rescuing them.”

Authorities in Bossasso say they want the smuggling to stop but complain that their forces are too small to compete with the many well-armed boat owners. But the real reason that smuggling thrives, Mohammed said, is that some police officers take a cut of the receipts.

“The migration is too big for anyone to control,” acknowledged Christian Baureder of the Bossasso office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Instead, the U.N. and aid agencies are planning a campaign to educate migrants about the dangers of using smugglers.

But many know the odds long before they reach Bossasso. Once here, it can take months, even years, to cobble together enough money to pay for the trip. Near the port, large communities of migrants huddle in sweltering squatter camps, hunting for odd jobs in the daytime and sleeping at night on strips of cardboard in the open air.

Gorabat hopes to cross a sixth time. He made a deal with a smuggler he knows: If he can round up nine others to pay for the journey, he can go for free. Until then, he trudges off to the port every morning to look for work — most days in vain.

“I can’t afford to even eat here,” he said, his fraying athletic jersey hanging from his bony body like a flag. “I have to go back to Yemen soon. I know how to swim. I just have to try my luck.”

Related stories from McClatchy DC