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Last Updated: Monday, 15 January 2007, 11:37 GMT
Heading for Yemen for a better life
By Adam Mynott
BBC News, Bossaso

Abdur Mohammed has just had his 13th birthday. He spent it sleeping rough on the streets of Bossaso, a port town in Puntland in northern Somalia.

Abdur Mohammed in Bossaso. Credit:Nawaz Shah
Abdur Mohammed sleeps rough

He has been here for three weeks after walking and hitching lifts from his home, hundreds of kilometres away in Ethiopia.

Abdur Mohammed is part of a massive flood of humanity converging on Bossaso from Ethiopia, southern Somalia and Sudan.

The authorities in the town estimate there are over 5,000 people sleeping rough or squatting.

The magnet for these people is the chance that Bossaso offers to escape from the misery of their lives in the Horn of Africa.

Abdur Mohammed was picked up by police a few days ago and was moved to a temporary camp on the outskirts of the town, where the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has provided rudimentary shelter and food.

He told me why he had come. "My mother and father were killed when I was young; then my uncle, who was looking after me was killed.

"So I had no-one caring for me and I thought I might be killed as well, so one night I just ran away."

Migrants in makeshift home. Credit:Nawaz Shah
Migrants live in miserable conditions
In his 12 and a bit years since he has endured more misery and heartache than most experience in an entire lifetime.

"I've come to Bossaso because I want to catch a boat to Yemen. I have nothing to live for in Ethiopia."

Bossaso, a bustling fishing and commercial port, is the busiest transit point for migrants in the world.

A day's sailing away across the Gulf of Aden is the coast of Yemen, and thousands see the warm, blue waters as the chance to escape grinding poverty and hunger in north-east Africa.

They have heard that there is plenty of work to be found in Yemen or neighbouring Saudi Arabia, and many hope they can make their way into Europe.


The migrants have to find $90 for the passage across the Gulf. It represents a small fortune to these people. If they can find it, the most they will be paid for a day's labouring work in Bossaso is $1, so some spend weeks trying to save up enough for the trip.

Others will have sold all their possessions or borrowed at extortionate rates on interest. The deals are done at night in the dark alleyways of the port.

Abdul Aziz had come to Bossaso with four friends. He was saving for his "ticket". I spoke to him in a dingy tea shop.

He had heard of the risks involved, of unscrupulous captains who throw their passengers overboard. I asked him if he was afraid he might die.

"If I go back to Ethiopia I am a dead man anyway. So I might as well die trying," he said.

Fishing boats in Bossasso harbour. Credit:Nawaz Shah
Several boats in the harbour are equipped for migrants
For the boat captains it is a very lucrative sideline to their fishing. If they fill a boat with 90 to 100 migrants, a couple of night's work can bring in an entire year's fishing income, $8,000 - $9,000.

The only risk they face is being caught by the Yemeni coastguards, so a few kilometres from their destination they tell their "passengers" to jump overboard and swim. Many have drowned.

The authorities in Bossaso say they are trying to clamp down on the illegal trade, but it is clear that little more than lip service is paid to this. Bobbing in the harbour under the noses of the coastguards are several fishing boats which are rigged and equipped for migrants.

Another try

The captains have an apparently endless supply of customers; the Puntland Interior Ministry estimates that 300 people are making the trip across to Yemen every night.

Walking to Bossaso. Credit:Nawaz Shah
The journey to Bossaso is also a hazardous one
On the road leading through mountainous desert into Bossaso, we found Hussein Mohammed Nur. He had been walking for five days and had not eaten anything for the past 48 hours.

Weak from hunger, he had also picked up typhoid - probably from filthy water he had drunk on the way.

He was walking to Bossaso.

"I'm going to Yemen," he said."I was there two years ago, but the police arrested me and sent me back to Ethiopia.

"Four years ago, I managed to get to Saudi, when I caught a boat from Djibouti. I know I can find work in Yemen, so I am trying again."

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