The United Nations' refugee agency Monday called for international action to stop the smuggling of people following the capsizing of a boat off the coast of Yemen over the weekend in which more than 20 people died.
A spokeswoman at the headquarters of the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees, Marie-Helene Verney, tells VOA the 120 or so Ethiopians and Somalis who were packed into a boat destined for Yemen were there for different reasons.
"Amongst these people, there are potential refugees, there are people who could be asylum seekers but it's become so difficult to ask for asylum in Europe that some of them feel they have to use smugglers to get in, that is really their only chance," she said. "Others are leaving for economic reasons. You have people who want to go because they want to better their lives; you have people who want to go because, unless they go, they will die."
At least 22 people died and 28 others went missing after the smugglers' boat they were traveling in capsized near the shore of Yemen Saturday.
The boat had left a Somali village near the northeastern town of Bossaso, which is a major port for smuggling operations crossing the Gulf of Aden.
As a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, Yemen automatically grants refugee status to Somali citizens who arrive in Yemen, but does not automatically do so for Ethiopians.
Spokeswoman Verney says her agency estimates that hundreds of people have died within the last year or so during such smuggling operations. She says, for every boat that arrives there may be 10 others or more.
According to a U.N. report, from January 12 to 17, at least 22 boats carrying an unknown number of people landed on the coast of Yemen. During that week, a U.N. reception center registered more than 1,200 Somalis and almost 40 Ethiopians.
There are some 75,000 registered Somali refugees in Yemen.
Verney describes why there are so many accidents and deaths on smugglers' boats.
"It's overcrowding, it's the age of the boats, it's the lack of repair," she said. "They're not in there to make the crossing safe and comfortable. They're in the business to make money. One of the reasons why many people die is that so often the smugglers force them to jump and swim when they're still far off the coast because the nearer they get to the coast, the bigger the danger they will be caught."
Verney says governments, agencies, and others must make people aware of the problem of people smuggling and, in the case of refugees and asylum seekers, tell them that there are other ways of leaving their dangerous situations.
Somalia is emerging from more than 14 years of civil war, while Ethiopia is experiencing political instability and a possible border conflict with neighboring Eritrea.