The U.N. refugee agency says the death toll continues to mount among Somalis and Ethiopians who put their lives in the hands of smugglers ferrying them to Yemen across the Gulf of Aden. The UNHCR reports at least 89 people have been confirmed dead and 154 missing and presumed dead so far this month. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
The U.N. refugee agency says desperate people resort to desperate measures to improve their lives. And, in the case of Somalis, the UNHCR says many of them are gambling with their lives to find a place where they can be safe from the intensifying fighting in their country.
It says many Somalis and Ethiopians are paying high prices for smugglers to sail them across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen. But, it says the trip usually ends up being a nightmare and often fatal.
U.N. refugee spokeswoman, Jennifer Pagonis, says five boats arrived in Yemen on Wednesday, carrying 600 Somalis and Ethiopians. She says one person was confirmed dead, while 22 remain missing and are presumed dead.
She says surviving passengers recount numerous horror stories of life at sea.
"Survivors of a recent boat arrival told us that they had been violently treated by smugglers who had beaten them with iron bars, belts and plastic tubes and stabbed them with daggers," she said. "You know people are dying as a result of asphyxiation, people are drowning as they try to reach the shore from deep water. Several new arrivals reported that Yemeni armed forces had opened fire when they spotted boats."
Pagonis says the UNHCR brought this up with the Yemeni authorities, expressing concern for the well being of civilians. She says the authorities explain many of the smugglers arrive with weapons and drugs and they have to protect themselves from that.
Since the beginning of September, the UNHCR reports 50 smuggling boats, nearly two a day, have arrived at the Yemen shores from Somalia. It says they carried more than 4,700 people - mostly Somalis and Ethiopians. It notes that is an increase of 70 percent over last year.
The agency says it is strengthening its operations to deal with this ongoing crisis. It says it is planning to set up a second reception and registration center in Ahwar along the Yemeni coast. This should speed up the process of transferring the new arrivals to places where they can apply for asylum.
Pagonis says the UNHCR also is looking to expand its monitoring presence along the coast. Although, she acknowledges it is very difficult to effectively monitor a coastline that is 600-kilometers-long.