Bossaso in northern Somalia is a place that does a rip-roaring trade in human misery. A lawless shanty-town-cum-port on the south side of the Gulf of Aden, it’s a centre for piracy, arms trading, drug smuggling and human trafficking, the one feeding off the other in very profitable fashion for local warlords. The UN describes it as one of the main exit points for illegal immigration in the whole of East Africa, with skiffs ferrying migrants across to Yemen, and then returning back equally laden with weapons.
Frequently, however, such skiffs end up overloaded, as happened earlier last week when 55 people drowned when their boat capsized soon after leaving Bosaso. Another 27 died in similar fashion back in April, and further 57 in February last year.
It isn’t for lack of warnings. Local UN workers often wander the beaches around Bossaso where would-be migrants gather, showing them graphic pictures of bloated corpses that have washed up after previous sinkings. But few people pay attention. Most have already travelled a thousand miles or more just to get to Bossaso, often spending half their savings in the process, and the boat trip is just another gamble that they’re prepared to take.
You might expect, though, that with the international anti-piracy force patrolling the Gulf of Aden, this would be another high priority for them. Not so. As I found out during a trip on HMS Cornwall back in 2009, the same slightly baffling rules of engagement that allow pirates to be caught and then released also apply when it comes to people smugglers.
Sailing just outside Bossaso, we came across a suspiciously overloaded skiff, and so Cornwall despatched a speedboat full of Marines to investigate. A man steering the skiff waved them away, as if to say “nothing to worry about here”, only for the tarpaulin to suddenly ripple, and various people’s heads to start poking out one by one, to see what was going on. It was very clearly a people-trafficking skiff.
But as it turned out, the man steering the skiff was right: he didn’t have anything to worry about at all. Somewhat to my surprise, the Cornwall’s commanders explained that their policy was not to apprehend people trafficking boats – partly because they had no proper facilities to hold refugees, but partly because the smugglers had a nasty habit of chucking their passengers overheard if they got chased. Not to get rid of the evidence, you understand, but because they knew that the Cornwall would be obliged, on humanitarian grounds, to rescue those overboard before doing anything else.
It was yet another example of how foreign navies have become hamstrung by the rules of engagement, and how easily their foes had learned to manipulate those rules, in this case by operating a modern-day version of walking the plank.
Instead, Cornwall let the skiff carry on its way, radioing the boat’s position and direction to the Yemeni Coastguard, who, I was told, would decide on whether to make an arrest or not. Whether they did, I have no idea. But given that Yemen has become almost as much of a failed state as Somalia in recent years, I doubt it.