With the collapse of Somalia's central government in 1991, the Republic of Puntland unilaterally set itself up as a separate country. Situated opposite the Yemeni coastline on the Gulf of Aden, Puntland's main port of Bossaso has since grown into a thriving trading centre; and not just because of the commercial goods transiting through this small port on their way to Mogadishu and the interior of landlocked Ethiopia.
Bossaso has become the centre of a massive people-smuggling operation--part of the worldwide network of transit stations used by international gangs trafficking in human misery. Bossaso port is only a 20-hour boat ride from the Yemeni coast.
A short sea trip followed by a day's bus ride down the Arabian Peninsula brings the lure of lucrative jobs in Saudi Arabia or Dubai within reach of any illegal immigrant--and that's a prize that few of them are able to resist even if it means paying up to $5,000 each for the people-smuggler's services.
These would-be illegal immigrants trust their fate to shadowy traffickers, but how many of their number actually reach their destination after surviving the harrowing journey across the Gulf of Aden is difficult to estimate.
Reports of 200 persons drowning at sea have been of sufficient frequency to make one believe that many immigrants perish to get across. Despite this there has been no let-up in the numbers chancing their luck. Demand has kept criminal gangs fully occupied, despite an increased crackdown by many international agencies.
Long a transit point for indigenous Somalis on their way to the Middle East, Bossaso has also become a way station for Asians seeking a better life in the countries of the enlarged European Union (EU). It has also rapidly become a rest point for migrants seeking to reach Italy, Germany, UK and other member nations of the EU. Bossaso now regularly hosts migrants from as far away as Sri Lanka, China and the Philippines, in addition to those from Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania and even Zimbabwe.
In the month of April alone there were 470 Sri Lankans in Bossaso town, many of them surprised to find themselves in an obscure Somali port, rather than in the Italian coastal town they had been told to expect.
"I do wonder why our agents brought us here when they told us that they would take us directly to Italy," Sri Lankan Inda Kumar confessed. Some of Kumar's compatriots have been stranded in Bossaso for up to a year, but nevertheless he says he is "confident that they will keep their word".
CHILD SMUGGLING NOW INSTITUTIONALISED
To transport the illegal immigrants across the Gulf of Aden, smugglers use small fishing boats and cargo carrying dhows. For this part of the journey the immigrants are charged $30 to $50 per head, the cost additional to the $5,000 paid at the point of departure in their country of origin. In a bid to avoid detection, many such boats now leave from smaller ports to the north and south of Bossaso, some smugglers wary of being held responsible for crimes at sea should they ever be caught by one of the many US warships patrolling these waters.
Civil authorities in Puntland are aware of the human smuggling problem but lack the finances to deal with the sheer volume of these operations. A shortage of suitable jails, and a 1,700km coastline with few resources to police it results in even those smugglers and migrants they do manage to apprehend being released after only a short investigation period.
"We have arrested many of the criminals but with inadequate resources we have no alternative but to release them," Puntland police commissioner Abdirizak Mohamed Afgudud claims. "This enables the illegal trade to flourish."
In 2002, there were 6,680 Somali applications for asylum in the UK, 3,800 of which were granted exceptional leave to stay in the …