Sixteen Somalis drowned over the weekend after smugglers ferrying migrants to Yemen forced them overboard into the Gulf of Aden, the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) said Tuesday.
Another 64 passengers managed to swim to Yemen's shores after being ejected from the two ships involved in the latest deadly incidents along the busy migration route.
When the smugglers began to force people into the sea on the first boat, "frightened passengers moved toward one side of the vessel, causing it to collapse," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a Geneva news briefing.
On the second ship, Mahecic said that "fearing detection by the Yemeni authorities, the smugglers forced passengers to swim to shore." Ten bodies were recovered from the separate incidents and six people remain missing and presumed dead.
So far this year, some 36,000 Africans have reached Yemen by crossing by sea from northern Somalia, a jump of 33 percent over the first eight months of last year, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Another 20,000 people are expected to attempt the journey by year-end as the conflict deepens in Somalia, a Horn of Africa country where at least 50 people were killed and dozens wounded in fighting over the past week.
Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans have been making the voyage to escape violence, political unrest, famine and drought.
The UNHCR said that in the past five days alone, 17 boats carrying 835 people from East Africa arrived in Yemen, and signaled "a potential massive influx" could follow through the rest of 2009.
The Geneva-based agency has said that fighting in Mogadishu and central Somalia is causing more Somali civilians to risk their lives to reach Yemen, where they can seek asylum or move on to Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia.