18 April 2009

Pirates or corporate gangsters off the Somali coast?

By Juliette Harkin

When I was working in Sana'a, the world heritage site and capital of Yemen, I read stories about a protest by Somali refugees in the city who were demanding more support. In 2007 Yemen was hosting 110,600 Somali refugees thus fulfilling its role as signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocols. The UNHCR is active in Yemen and has an annual budget of $7 million which helps to run refugee camps along Yemen's coast line and the main refugee camp in Kharaz. But Yemen is a poor country and as refugees try to travel on to cities the support system is stretched to breaking point and the UN budget inadequate.

I was just watching a programme on al-Jazeera English about the 'Kind Sheikh' in a coastal village in Yemen which showed how they receive refugees into their country. The Sheikh provided food and water and shelter to Somalis who had survived a perilous and terrifying journey crammed in sub-standard vessels so they could escape for a new life in Yemen. Destitute in Yemen these Somali refugees were the lucky ones; family and loved ones who didn't make the journey wash up on the shore everyday. The Yemeni Sheikh makes it his business to work with local volunteers to ensure that the dead receive a proper Islamic burial. The kindness of the villagers in receiving a stream of refugees, and burying their dead, is deeply moving, especially when it is clear that the locals themselves are poor.

But, why on earth would Somalis risk uncertain death and pay money to make the journey to a country which itself suffers from high rates of poverty and unemployment? It seems the situation is so bad that families take to the sea in search of a better life. Somalis are seeking to escape from life under a dysfunctional transitional government. Taking advantage of the lawlessness, the Somali pirates are not the only lawless operators at sea.

Luckily Johann Hari has bothered to look behind the headlines we see and publish what he found on the Guardian website – commentisfree. He accuses European ships of continuing to dump nuclear waste off the coast of Somalia. This is sadly not something new and has been monitored by the United Nations Enivornmental Programme, Johann writes that: "after the 2005 tsunami, hundreds of the dumped and leaking barrels washed up on shore. People began to suffer from radiation sickness, and more than 300 died."

Satellite channel al-Jazeera English also picked up on this story quoting Ahmedou Ould-Abdallah, the UN envoy to Somalia, as confirming that the UN has "reliable information" that European and Asian companies are still dumping toxic waste, including nuclear waste, off the Somali coastline.

Johann Hari says that this is the context in which the "pirates" have emerged and there have equally been cases of Somalian fishermen in speedboats trying to dissuade not only the dumpers but also the foreign trawlers that are fast consuming Somali fish stocks. We only see the Somali opportunists seeking financial rewards and not the western private companies that are dumping toxic waste in the Indian ocean. We do not hear about the Somali fishermen, the good pirates, who struggle to earn a living in the waters that have become the world’s dumping ground.

As the US gunboats protect the Gulf of Aden which lets through 20% of the world's oil supply, the US Secretary of State Clinton announced a four point plan to deal with the Somali piracy. She said that "we may be dealing with a 17th-Century crime, but we need to bring 21st-Century assets to bear". Let’s hope that she will also use the 21st Century moral and ethical "assets" to finally stop private companies from dumping our toxic waste off the Somali coast.

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