GENEVA: Sixty migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia and two Yemeni crew members drowned last weekend in the worst such tragedy off the coast of Yemen this year, the UN said Friday.
"The tragedy is the largest single loss of life of migrants and refugees attempting to reach Yemen via the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden this year," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN's refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva.
The UN agency said it was still seeking information about the tragedy, but had confirmed that the boat carrying 60 Ethiopian and Somali migrants and two Yemeni crew members sank last Saturday in the Red Sea.
"The victims were reportedly buried by local residents after their bodies washed ashore near the Bab El Mandeb area off Yemen's coast," Edwards said, adding that the UNHCR did not know where the boat begun it journey.
The agency pointed out that counting previous such tragedies in the same area, at least 121 people have so far died this year trying to reach Yemen.
UNHCR said it had documented the arrival of 16,500 refugees and migrants on the Yemeni coast during the first four months of 2014 alone.
That number however was far below the 35,000 who arrived in Yemen during the same period last year.
Yemen is mainly used as a transit country, with African migrants often aiming to move on to the wealthy Gulf countries to find work.
Edwards explained to AFP that the drop in numbers arriving in the impoverished country appeared to be connected among other things to a shift in migration patterns towards North Africa and Libya amid unrest in Yemen and a crackdown in Saudi Arabia on illegal migration.
"Over the past five years, more than half a million people, mainly Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, have crossed the dangerous waters of the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea to reach Yemen," he said.
"Boats are overcrowded and smugglers have reportedly thrown passengers overboard to prevent capsizing or avoid detection," he added, pointing out that search-and-rescue officials estimate this has resulted in hundreds of undocumented deaths in recent years.
Thousands more migrants, many trying to reach Europe, have died in other tragedies at sea in recent years.
UNHCR said Friday it was "working to prevent the alarming loss of life at sea and indifference to people desperately needing protection."
"We are reiterating our call for governments in the region to strengthen their search-and-rescue capacities," Edwards said. (AFP)