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UNHCR: More than 100 People Believed Drowned in Gulf of Aden

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, says it fears that more than 100 people from Somalia and Ethiopia, sailing on smugglers' boats, may have drowned in the past week while trying to reach Yemen. In recent years, such tragedies have become commonplace in the waters off the Horn of Africa.

UNHCR says eyewitnesses and survivors interviewed by its staff in Yemen say there have been at least two tragic incidents in the past week in the choppy waters of the Gulf of Aden.

The first incident took place on March 3, aboard a smugglers' boat carrying 93 passengers. After experiencing a mechanical problem, the boat sank, leaving only four survivors.

Four days later, 18 of 85 passengers on a smugglers' boat drowned off the coast of Yemen. But UNHCR spokeswoman, Marie-Helene Berney, tells VOA that this tragedy was not the result of an accident, but caused by an act of cruelty.

"The 85 passengers on board were ordered by the crew to jump off the boat, quite away off the coast and to swim ashore," she said. "That was because the crew did not want to be intercepted by the Yemeni authorities."

Ms. Berney says both cases involved mostly Somalis and Ethiopians, who had sailed from the northeastern Somali town of Bossasso. She says survivors have told UNHCR that at least 1,500 more people are waiting in Bossasso to be smuggled into Yemen in the coming days.

UNHCR says human trafficking is so common in the Horn of Africa, it believes hundreds of people are dying every year in smuggling incidents which are never reported.

"There are people who are desperate to leave because of economic reasons," she said. "But there also are people who are leaving because of persecution, because of fear of violence. It is very regrettable that people resort to smugglers, to people who do not care at all about them or their lives, pay them what is a considerable amount of money, to try to get into Yemen."

Yemen, on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, is an attractive destination, especially for Somalis, because the country grants them refugee status automatically rather than on a case-by-case basis.

Some 47,000 Somalis are registered with UNHCR in Yemen, but Yemeni officials believe the number of Somali refugees in their country is in the hundreds of thousands.

But Ms. Berney says many do not stay in Yemen. The refugees often hire other smugglers to get them north into the European continent.

"Our big concern is that the people who are trying to reach Europe this way, we cannot protect people who come into countries illegally," said the UNHCR spokeswoman. "UNHCR, on its own, cannot deal with the smugglers' issue. That's why UNHCR is calling for an international effort to put an end to this."

One of the issues that remains unclear is whether the smugglers in the Horn are working independently or as part of an organized gang. UNHCR says security concerns in lawless Somalia have so far not allowed experts to investigate the problem in depth.