To the dozens of African migrants drowning in the Gulf of Aden after their boat capsized, the approaching dhow must have seemed like a lifeline. It was -- but not for them.
Instead, the crew of the second boat ordered their own human cargo into the shark-infested waters and plucked only their smuggler colleagues out of the sea before heading back toward Somalia.
At least 107 of the Somali and Ethiopian migrants who had boarded the boats in Puntland in Somalia drowned and were buried near the beach on Yemen's coast.
Ron Redmond, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Geneva, said on Friday that the Yemeni coast guard, which arrived at the scene several hours after the first boat capsized on Monday, had saved about 40 people.
Initially, it was thought that 30 people had died. But after piecing together information from survivors, UN officials realized the death toll was far higher -- and the circumstances more cruel.
"It seems that there were four smuggling boats that set off together," Redmond said. "When one capsized, a second boat threw its migrants overboard and saved the smugglers. The other two boats made it to Yemen where they offloaded their passengers."
The tragedy highlights the danger, cruelty and scale of the people smuggling operation in the Horn of Africa. Last year the UN recorded 27,000 people, mainly Ethiopians and Somalis, arriving in Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden.
Some were asylum seekers fleeing insecurity in Somalia, but most were economic migrants with dreams of finding work in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. Yemen is seen as a soft target as it gives Somalis refugee status. Smugglers charge between US$40 and US$100.
More than 300 migrants are known to have died at sea last year, but the true toll may be far higher, as the UN and Yemeni authorities are often not told of accidents.
The Somali people smugglers have always had a reputation for cruelty, but it seems they have become even more ruthless.
William Lorenz, of the International Organization for Migration said he had heard about an Ethiopian boy who was the only survivor on one dhow.
"The only reason he was not thrown overboard when the boat ran into trouble was because the smugglers needed him to bail out water."
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