By Tom Miles
GENEVA, Jan 26 (Reuters) - At least 30 African refugees and migrants drowned off the coast of Yemen this week in a boat operated by smugglers who are reported to have fired on passengers, the United Nations said on Friday.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement that survivors reported the overcrowded boat packed with at least 101 Ethiopians and 51 Somalis had departed towards Djibouti on Tuesday from Aden's al Buraiqa district.
"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 boat capsized amid reports of gunfire being used against the passengers," it said.
Migrant drownings between Yemen and the Horn of Africa are recorded much less often than on the route between North Africa and Europe, but IOM spokesman Joel Millman said 87,000 people risked their lives to reach Yemen last year.
"There's a flourishing trade, there's no question," he told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.
"There's also an enormous trafficking industry within Yemen - people still heading further on into the Gulf states for work. That's the reason why many of them are in Yemen at all, for further travel to the Emirates."
Yemen is suffering the world's worst humanitarian crisis, with war, economic collapse and eight million people on the brink of famine. Millman doubted there were large numbers leaving Yemen by boat because most people who were stuck there did not have the means to get away.
However, the empty boats making the return journey clearly created opportunities to ferry people to Africa on an 150-mile sea crossing known as "doorway to grief" in Arabic.
"We don't know the smugglers well enough to know the details of their business," he said.
Lynn Maalouf, director of Middle East research at Amnesty International, said the hostilities and the restrictions imposed by the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen were forcing people to flee, and some were dying in the process.
"The international community must halt arms transfers that could be used in the conflict, cooperate to ensure accountability for war crimes and other serious violations, and pressure the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to fully lift the restrictions on aid and commercial imports of essential goods," Maalouf said in a statement. (Reporting by Tom Miles; writing and editing by Stephanie Nebehay, Ralph Boulton, William Maclean)
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