So far, 30 bodies have been found washed up on shore Friday and were buried immediately, a Yemeni security official said.
The waters off the Horn of Africa and Yemen have become some of the most lawless in the world, plagued by Somali piracy notably the recent hijacking of a Ukrainian vessel with a cargo of heavy weapons. The area is also a busy crossing-point for migrants fleeing to Yemen from the Horn of Africa, particularly from Somalia, where ongoing violence has killed thousands of civilians.
"It's essentially the same problems that allow piracy and smuggling," said Roger Middleton, an expert on East Africa at the Chatham House think tank in London.
Those problems include dire economic conditions, mass displacements of people and the general lawlessness that abounds in Somalia, said Middleton. "People are very desperate."
In Geneva, the U.N. refugee agency spokesman Ron Redmond told reporters that the smugglers' boat had left Somalia on Monday with 150 people on board.
Later, when their vessel was about 3 miles (5 kilometers) off shore, the smugglers forced all but 12 of the migrants overboard, Redmond said. The 12 were put in a smaller boat while the rest tried to swim to shore, he said. Only 47 are made it and alerted authorities, he said.
The Yemeni official said the boat was bound for Yemen's Shabwa province, some 300 miles (500 kilometers) south of San'a on the Gulf of Aden coast. He believed that between 100 and 118 migrants could have drowned.
The 30 bodies found so far were buried Friday in Shabwa, in keeping with Islamic customs of quick burial, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media.
In a sign of how frequent such drownings are, he cautioned that it was not certain whether all the 30 came from the boat, since bodies often float in on the Shabwa shores. During the first half September, some 165 bodies were found on the shore and buried, the Interior Ministry said in a statement.
Reports of abuse by smugglers are common in the heavy traffic of migrants across the sea to Yemen. Often, migrants are attacked during the journey by smugglers and thrown overboard into shark-infested waters.
The U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Antonio Guterres, said Thursday that the number of crossings has doubled "in the present season."
So far this year, about 32,000 people have arrived in Yemen on boats, many of them from the Horn of Africa, he said. The Yemeni Interior Ministry statement said 22,532 Somali migrants have reached Yemen so far this year. The UNHCR estimates at least 230 people have died and 365 remain missing, including 100 from the latest incident.
"This is one of the most dramatic situations in the world," Guterres said at a press conference in Geneva. "Rescue at sea is also one of the areas in which the world has to invest massively to be able to be more and more effective."
"The way smugglers and traffickers treat people is absolutely outrageous and corresponds to one of the worst crimes that we can see in today's world," Guterres said. "This is an area where I believe the international community needs to invest a lot in the management of borders, but the management of borders with a protection-sensitive approach."
He urged the international community to look "not only for pirates but also to look for these (human trafficking) situations in the Gulf of Aden."
The waters off Somalia have been plagued by pirate attacks, despite patrols by U.S. warships trying to protect shipping. This month, a Ukrainian tanker full of heavy weapons was seized, and pirates demanding ransom still hold the ship. A Russian warship is headed for the region to deal with the hijacking, and NATO has also said it will help with patrols in the area.
Middleton from Chatham House called the NATO patrols "really excellent news" because they would combat against both piracy and human trafficking.