The U.N. refugee agency reported Monday that human traffickers forced a group of about 450 people from Somalia and Ethiopia off of boats in the Gulf of Aden, far from shore. At least 29 people are confirmed dead and 71 others missing in the incident, which occurred Thursday. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.
Some of the 293 survivors and other witnesses say smugglers on four boats forced the passengers overboard into shark infested waters far from shore. They say the sea was rough, with strong currents, making it difficult for many to swim ashore.
UNHCR Spokesman Ron Redmond tells VOA, the smugglers are extremely brutal.
"In this particular incident, they knifed them. They beat them with clubs, threw them overboard, where they were also attacked by sharks. Several women reported that rapes occurred during the voyage. It is an absolutely horrific experience, and yet, people continue to resort to these smugglers, because they are so desperate to escape poverty, to escape persecution and violence in the Horn of Africa," he said.
Redmond says hundreds of Somalis were taken to a UNHCR reception center where they received medical assistance and other aid.
"Another group of primarily Ethiopians had reached the shore. But, they were afraid of being picked up and deported by Yemen authorities, so they ran off into the morning darkness. We assume they are still alive, and are on the move elsewhere in the Middle East. But, 100 people are either dead or missing," he said.
The government of Yemen automatically grants asylum to people from Somalia. But, it considers Ethiopians to be illegal migrants, who are detained by security forces and face possible deportation.
UNHCR records show some 26,000 people made the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden last year. Al least 330 died and another 300 reported missing are believed dead.
Since the first of this year, the agency says at least 4,400 people have landed on the Yemeni coast, and at least 166 people have died.
UNHCR Spokesman Redmond says desperate people are going to continue to risk their lives until the root causes of poverty and conflict in the Horn of Africa are resolved.