On Thursday, March 16th, more than 40 Somali refugees were killed off the coast of Yemen by an airstrike from an Apache helicopter. The registered refugees were on their way from Yemen to Sudan when they were attacked by a military ship and helicopter near the Bab al-Mandeb strait. The refugees waved flashlights and shouted to show that that they were not combatants. Nevertheless, by the time the helicopter and ship stopped firing, dozens had already been killed.
The attacker remains unidentified. Some suspect the Saudi-led coalition, which has been fighting rebels in Yemen and has been heavily bombarding the Yemeni coast. However, the coalition stated that they did not conduct any operations or have any engagements in that area on Thursday.
The boat was heading towards Sudan, which suggests that the refugees were following an increasingly active migrant route. Lying across the Red Sea from Yemen and bordering Libya, Sudan is the waypoint for many refugees and migrants who want to reach Europe. Libya is the only major gateway to Europe from North Africa.
The Somali refugee crisis, one of the most prominent worldwide, is now in its third decade. This is due to Somalia’s struggle with a powerful Islamist insurgency and a looming famine. According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Yemen still shelters around 255,000 Somali refugees, despite being itself a war-torn country wracked by civil war since 2015. While most refugees travel to Yemen in hope of using it as a transit point, some establish residency in Yemen unaware of the dangers. When in Yemen, refugee women and children are at higher risk of sexual violence and trafficking. There have also been reports of physical and sexual abuse, food and water deprivation, abduction, extortion and forced labor by smugglers and criminal networks.
UNHCR last month launched a major campaign to spread awareness about the risks of the journey to Yemen and the dangers of staying in Yemen. Amin Awad, UNHCR Middle East and North Africa Director stated that “UNHCR cannot sit by while so many people, mainly young, board smugglers’ boats after making uninformed decisions about Yemen and the desperate and dangerous situation there.” Through the campaign, UNHCR hopes to convey to refugees how the drawn-out conflict and insecurity in Yemen helps criminal networks target new arrivals.
The recent attack reinforces the perils for refugees in Yemen. Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, articulated, “Civilians are disproportionately bearing the consequences of the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. More than ever, peace is urgently needed in Yemen. Only a peaceful political solution can put an end to the current suffering and misery.” Instead of providing a safe stepping stone on their route to Europe, the dangerous environment in Yemen worsens the condition for displaced refugees.