Beirut: At least 50 migrants drowned near Yemen after a human smuggler threw them into sea.
The migrants — average age 16 — were fleeing two desperate places, Ethiopia and Somalia. They were headed to the shores of war-torn Yemen.
But early Wednesday morning, as they were about to reach land, they were thrown into the Arabian Sea by a boatman they had paid to take them across the water, according to the United Nations migration agency.
At least 50 of them drowned.
Their attempted flight to a country consumed by war was a measure of the desperation of thousands of people from the Horn of Africa, where successive droughts have led to acute shortages of food and water and to outbreaks of disease. Thousands have fled, usually paying smugglers to take them to Gulf countries in search of work.
The route, across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, takes them through Yemen, one of the world’s most dangerous war zones, where air strikes and mortar shelling have become routine, and a cholera outbreak has affected more than 400,000 people.
And Yemen, too, is on the brink of famine. Nearly seven million residents rely entirely on food aid, the World Food Programme says.
On Wednesday, the International Organisation for Migration, a UN agency, said in a statement that it had found 27 survivors from among the people thrown into the sea. They described how their smuggler had tossed them overboard as their boat approached Shabwa, on the Yemeni coast.
“The survivors told our colleagues on the beach that the smuggler pushed them to the sea when he saw some ‘authority types’ near the coast,” Laurent de Boeck, the agency’s Yemen chief of mission, said in a statement. “They also told us that the smuggler has already returned to Somalia to continue his business and pick up more migrants to bring them to Yemen on the same route. This is shocking and inhumane.”
The migration agency reported finding 29 bodies hastily buried on the beach. Another 22 people were still missing.
The agency estimates that this year alone, 55,000 people have left the Horn of Africa and come through Yemen seeking work in the wealthy countries of the Gulf. More than half were children.
In addition to Yemen, Somalia is one of the four countries around the world at risk of famine, according to the United Nations — a determination made on the basis of specific criteria, including the number of hunger-related deaths. Some 6.7 million people require humanitarian assistance, and more than 760,000 people are displaced within the country, according to the United Nations.
Ethiopia also faces acute hunger, though it has not reached the near-famine threshold; the United Nations says at least 8.5 million Ethiopians are in need of immediate food aid and children suffer from a debilitating form of diarrhoea.