At least 30 African migrants and refugees drowned off Yemen this week after their overcrowded vessel capsized during a clash with smugglers trying to extort them for more money, the United Nations said Friday.
The mass drowning, in the Gulf of Aden, which separates war-ravaged Yemen from the destitute Horn of Africa, punctuated the lethal hazards facing migrants and refugees in an especially insecure part of the world.
The victims, Somalis and Ethiopians who had originally sought temporary refuge in Yemen, were en route back toward their home countries — a telling barometer of Yemen’s descent into deprivation during its long civil war.
“These migrants, as far as we can tell, are folks who have been in limbo inside Yemen for some time,” said Joel A. Millman, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, a United Nations agency. “Because of the incredibly difficult conditions of Yemen, people get fed up.”
In a statement, the agency said the mass drowning happened on Tuesday, after a boat packed with at least 152 people — 101 Ethiopians and 51 Somalis — departed Yemen’s Al Buraiqa coast for Djibouti, a tiny African nation across the Gulf of Aden.
“The vessel is believed to have been operated by unscrupulous smugglers who were attempting to take refugees and migrants to Djibouti, while also trying to extort more money from these refugees and migrants,” the statement said. “The boat capsized amid reports of gunfire being used against the passengers.”
The statement said the agency and its partners were working to learn more about the episode and were providing emergency assistance to survivors.
Ravaged by successive droughts, hunger and disease, the Horn of Africa is a major source of migration by people desperate for a better life.
Despite the war in Yemen, more than 87,000 migrants and refugees risked their lives last year seeking to reach the country by boat from the Horn of Africa, the agency said. At least 111 deaths were reported in 2017, and 109 in 2016.
The victims last year included at least 50 passengers from Somalia and Ethiopia bound for Yemen, who were thrown into the sea by traffickers as their boat neared the coast.
Many migrants see Yemen as a transit point for travel to Saudi Arabia and other affluent Persian Gulf countries where they can find work.
But Yemen also has become a departure point in the reverse route for migrants deported from Saudi Arabia. About 100,000 migrants from Ethiopia left Saudi Arabia last year, either voluntarily or through deportation, including some who returned via Yemen.
The nearly three-year-old war in Yemen, pitting Houthi insurgents against a Saudi-backed military coalition, also has contributed to a reverse migration back to Africa. Millions of Yemenis are facing acute hunger and disease, including a cholera epidemic that has sickened roughly 1 million people.
Jeffrey Labovitz, the agency’s regional director in Nairobi, said many migrants in Yemen are enduring “dire and vulnerable situations in a country at war, which is also suffering from large-scale food shortages.”