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Search Underway for Smugglers After Migrants Drown Off Yemen

The International Organization for Migration says it is searching for smugglers who it says forced 120 Somalis and Ethiopians into the sea as their vessel approached the Yemeni coast, causing more than 50 teenage migrants to drown.

Survivors tell migration officials the smugglers panicked and forced the migrants into the choppy sea when they saw Yemeni authorities as they approached land.

International Organization for Migration spokeswoman Olivia Headon tells VOA the migrants knew they could die, but were helpless to resist.

“There was one lead smuggler who was directly instructing the migrants, but he did have other smugglers working on the boat with him who were armed with guns and other weapons. So, the migrants had a choice," she said. "They would either be harmed more than they probably had been on the journey, shot or go jump into the sea. Some were actually physically pushed as well.”

The IOM says 29 people died, 22 are still missing and presumed drowned. Headon says 42 people left the beach before IOM staff could reach them. She says 27 surviving migrants, both females and males around 16 years old, are receiving urgent medical and psychological care.

After the smugglers dumped their human cargo, she says they turned back to Somalia to pick up more people and bring them back on the extremely dangerous, deadly voyage.

“Boats are making this journey all the time where people are being abused and raped on route so that their families will pay more… Some people are paying as little as $100 U.S., but then on route they are tortured, they are abused, their families are made aware of this and are forced to pay $1,000 or to $2,000 more.”

Headon says it is unlikely the smugglers will be caught, nevertheless, the IOM is trying to gather more information on the smugglers to pass on to the authorities. She says greater international cooperation is needed to halt or reduce the trade in human beings.