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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 April, 2004, 07:56 GMT 08:56 UK
Somalia's trafficking boom town
By Mohamed Adow
BBC, north-east Somalia

The port in Bossaso
The port is a magnet for people seeking to escape

The port town of Bossaso in north-east Somalia is a sea of humanity, but not all in this town are original inhabitants.

Thousands of people stay here because it has become a key site for a massive people smuggling operation.

This Red Sea port has always been the gateway to the Yemeni coast but of late people smugglers have started taking migrants to Italy, making Bossaso a popular spot for those wishing to get to Europe.

The people smuggling business is booming for those who run it but it is dangerous and at times tragic for the migrants themselves.

Because of the lack of a meaningful authority in this part of war-torn Somalia, this business undertaken by networks of smugglers and their counterparts all over Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Italy is getting bigger and more lucrative by the day.

Sri Lankans for Italy

Those coming to Bossaso to migrate come from far and near. The majority are from inside Somalia and neighbouring Ethiopia.

But there are those from far off places such as Tanzania and even Sri Lanka.

There are more than 470 Sri Lankans in Bossaso. Some of whom have been holed up in this town for as long as one and a half years.

Some of those I spoke to said they had never heard of this town until they were brought over by the smugglers from Sri Lanka by plane through the United Arab Emirates.

The Sri Lankans are on their way to Italy and remain confident that the smugglers will keep their word.

"I do wonder why our agents brought us here in the first place, when they told us that they will take us directly to Italy," Sri Lankan Inda Kumar said.

Each of them has paid $5,000 for the trip.

Yemen bound

The main destination for most Somalis, Ethiopians and Tanzanians is the Yemeni coast which is about 20 hours ride by boat from Bossaso.

Italian policeman and medic aid survivor in Lampedusa last year
Somali migrants are at the mercy of smugglers, bad weather and unsafe boats
They then strive to get through to Saudi Arabia, where they hope to find work. They are usually packed onto small and dilapidated fishing boats.

The Somali migrants say they have no alternative but to flee the hopelessness and insecurity at home.

They are charged a fee of between $30 and $50.

These sea expeditions often end in tragedy and relatives are called to the beaches of Bossaso a few days after their departure to be shown the bodies.


Survivors, who either return voluntarily or are deported by the Saudi authorities, narrate harrowing tales of inhumanity that migrants face at the hands of the smugglers.

Police Commissioner Abdirizak Mohamed Afgudud
Puntland authorities are struggling to halt the trade
They speak of incidents where sailors off-load people in the middle of the sea when the risk of capsizing due to overloading becomes too great.

Those who refuse to jump are shot and their bodies heaved off the boats.

But the most common way in which many migrants meet their death is when the smugglers, fearing being caught by Yemeni coastguards, abandon their passengers far from the shore.

Those who can't swim, especially women and children, often meet their death this way.

Said Hirsi Mohammed survived such an incident in which more than 200 people died.

He says the smugglers prefer to take people from other parts of Somalia and other countries to those from Puntland as they do not want to be held liable for the crimes at sea.

Somalia has been without a central government since 1991, and the authorities in the breakaway Somali republic of Puntland, who control Bossaso, say they have been overwhelmed by the large numbers of migrants, and do not have the resources to guard their 1,700km coastline.

Puntland Police Commissioner Abdirizak Mohamed Afgudud told me that though they have arrested many of the smugglers and migrants, a lack of proper jails and finances prevents them holding the culprits for long.

And this, he says, enables the illicit trade to flourish.

Somali boat tragedy 'kills 80'
15 Jan 03  |  Africa
Country profile: Somalia
29 Jan 04  |  Country profiles

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