The U.N. refugee agency reports at least 26 people are dead and others are missing after smugglers transporting them across the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa forced them overboard off the coast of Yemen.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

Survivors say the smugglers forced all 120 passengers overboard at gunpoint.  They say those who refused were pushed and beaten.  Some were killed.

They say the smugglers had assured them that a smaller vessel would take them ashore.  But, none came.  The U.N. refugee agency says at least 74 people came out of this ordeal alive.  It says 26 bodies have been recovered and 20 others are still missing.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says nearly 26,000 people have arrived in Yemen this year after making the perilous voyage aboard smugglers' boats.  He says more than 200 have died and at least 225 remain missing.

He says there were just over 9,000 arrivals, 267 dead and 118 missing during the first nine months last year.  He says this enormous upsurge in people smuggling across the Gulf of Aden is tied to the deteriorating situation in the Horn of Africa.

"We believe that the unrest and the fighting in Somalia itself is a major contributor.  People are absolutely desperate to escape.  Also there are more smugglers involved in this trade and they have, at various times last year, they opened up new routes going across the Gulf of Aden to different places.  So, there are a variety of factors, we believe involved.  But, a lot of it is because the desperation itself is growing," he said. 

Redmond says traffic across the Gulf of Aden right now is heavier than usual.  He says it is believed smugglers are taking advantage of a perceived decline in coastal surveillance during the holy month of Ramadan.

The UNHCR and other international agencies are calling for global action to better address this deadly problem.  During the past year, it has substantially stepped up its work in Yemen. 

The agency is providing additional staff, improved humanitarian assistance, more shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp and training programs for Yemeni coast guards and other officials.