People traffickers fired automatic weapons at refugees to force them to jump into heavy seas off the coast of Yemen, according to survivors of the incident that killed dozens last week.
The boat capsized after the shooting prompted panic. The death toll is currently 30, but is expected to rise.
The incident was the latest in a series of capsizings in which hundreds – possibly thousands – have died fleeing to Yemen from Somalia, or from Yemen to other nearby countries deemed safer by refugees.
At least 152 Somalis and Ethiopians were on board the overcrowded vessel, which left Aden in southern Yemen around midnight last Tuesday headed across the Gulf of Aden for Djibouti. Many of those on board, including dozens of children, were unable to swim.
Khadija Abdirahman, a 25-year-old Somali who lost two relatives, said the smugglers had demanded additional payments from passengers after six hours at sea. “The [smugglers] asked for some more money before we reached our destination. When the people on the boat argued, they ordered us to jump out of the boat but we refused. One of them then started shooting. Some of the people died in the boat while others started to jump out of the boat before it overturned,” Abdirahman said.
Many of those on board had come from the Kharaz refugee camp near Aden, and were hoping to reach Djibouti, where they believed aid agencies were offering help to refugees. The final destination of others was Egypt, or Europe.
The smugglers charged $350 (£249) for the journey, survivors said.
Muse Dhubow Omar, 29, was travelling with his pregnant wife, who is now missing. He said: “I do not know if she has died or [is] still alive. When the commotion inside the boat started, there was gunshot. A man near me was hit then I jumped out but my wife was not close to me. I could see the boat capsized and the water was everywhere. No one could help another person.”
“We knew this was a risky journey but living in Yemen is more risky. What could we do? Either get killed in bombing in Somalia, die in the camp, or in the smuggler’s boat. Death is death. I would actually try again if I get the money to pay for the smugglers,“ Muse said.
Moulid Ali Ibrahim, 32, says he was put in touch with the smugglers by middlemen who visit the refugee camps in Yemen and urban neighbourhoods where migrants live.
“The boat was a small fishing boat. Some of us were sitting on top of others like animals. The three smugglers were armed with guns and sticks. I saw two people hit with bullets. One was a woman and the other was a young man. I knew how to swim so I was first to jump and swam toward the coast but two of my friends died,” he said.
In a similar incident in August last year, traffickers threatened around 120 men, women and children with automatic weapons to force them to jump into the sea while still at least 1km off the coast of Yemen.
The war in Yemen has killed 9,245 people since Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies joined the government’s fight against the Houthis, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), triggering what the UN has called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
But Yemen continues to draw migrants from the Horn of Africa, many of them seeking work in prosperous Gulf countries further north. More than 87,000 attempted the journey last year, the UN say. Many then move on, some into Gulf countries, others towards the Mediterranean.
Refugees, such as those pictured here in the port city of Aden, often attempt dangerous boat journeys. Photograph: Saleh Al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Images