The UN refugee agency said Tuesday at least 66 people drowned in the Gulf of Aden over the weekend after being forced overboard by smugglers off the coast of Yemen.
In a statement, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said the tragedy involved two smugglers' boats that left the Somali coastal town of Bossaso on Saturday with 244 people aboard, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians.
"Up to 66 people drowned Sunday in the Gulf of Aden after being forced overboard by smugglers off the coast of Yemen, survivors said," UNHCR said in a statement.
Scores of people seeking a better life have been killed by brutal human smugglers during the perilous Gulf of Aden journey from Somalia to Yemen, adding to a mounting annual death toll that is already in the hundreds.
"The two vessels reached the Yemen coast off Hawrat Al Shatee on Sunday, survivors said. Passengers were forced into deep water and many drowned, they said."
The UN refugee agency said a total of 28 bodies were buried on the beach, while 38 (29 Ethiopians and nine Somalis) remain missing.
"So far this year, more than 20,000 people have made the perilous voyage across the Gulf of Aden in boats operated by ruthless smugglers operating from Somali ports," UNHCR said.
At least 439 people have died this year and another 489 are missing and feared dead.
According to UNHCR, survivors of the weekend tragedy said the crew of one of the crowded boats had harshly beaten passengers during the voyage, injuring several of them.
"After being forced into deep water off the Yemeni coast, a total of 178 people managed to make it to shore," the statement said.
Arrival did not signal safety; some reported being robbed by Yemeni military personnel. Aid workers arriving on the scene provided food and water before transferring the group to UNHCR's Mayfaa reception center.
"While most of the arrivals in Yemen are Somalis and Ethiopians, we have recently received reports that Kenyans, Ugandans and Tanzanians are also waiting in Somalia to make the voyage," the statement said.
Last year, some 26,000 people arrived in Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden.
"But the numbers show no sign of slowing, despite efforts on the both sides of the Gulf of Aden to warn people of the dangers involved in dealing with smugglers," UNHCR said.
Over the past year, UNHCR has stepped up its work in Yemen under a 7 million U.S. dollar operation that includes additional staff, increased field presence, more assistance, provision of additional shelter for refugees in Kharaz refugee camp near Aden, and training programs for the coast guard and other officials.