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Smugglers Throw Nearly 280 Migrants Overboard Near Yemen


Smugglers threw as many as 280 migrants into the waters off the coast of Yemen in two separate incidents this week. The International Organization for Migration says dozens are dead. The IOM says the migrants from Ethiopia and Somalia were deliberately drowned. Joining us now is Joel Millman of the IOM. Welcome to the program.

JOEL MILLMAN: Thanks very much.

SHAPIRO: What else can you tell us about how these two incidents unfolded?

MILLMAN: Well, we're still gathering information. We understand that this morning, four more remains were found of other migrants. Our count at the moment is 39 confirmed dead and 31 still missing. So we're at least at 70 at the moment. We know that this is a very common route. In fact you could even say it's one of the oldest routes on Earth. People have been coming out of Africa along this route into the Middle East since before time was recorded. It's picked up quite a lot because of drought conditions in the Horn of Africa, general poverty and some violence in some countries.

But smugglers have also been marketing the Yemen civil war as a good opportunity to cross undetected. We know that's not true, but they market this idea pretty heavily. In fact they do the same thing in Libya. And that's caused - as we understand it, close to 60,000 people have tried to get across the straits since the 1st of this year. And casualties on that route are in the hundreds.

Whoever was operating the smuggling vessel - we hesitate to call them the smuggler because it's often someone that's recruited to get a cut rate and pay less because they help out with the transit. They were frightened by something they saw - we believe it might have been a patrol - and panicked and ordered the passengers into the water.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell me about what you've heard from one of the survivors?

MILLMAN: Well, I didn't speak to them myself. But I understand that we heard that there were a preponderance of Ethiopian and Somalis, which is not unusual - this is a very typical route for the Ethiopians - and that they were pretty young. I mean we have - almost all of them were teenagers. Beyond that, I can't really share very much. I know that there are a number who after a day decided to continue their trek. And there's others that we were able to persuade to turn back.

SHAPIRO: It sounds as though this might be an extraordinary circumstance, but it's not at all unheard of.

MILLMAN: Oh, it's far from unheard of. I mean you can go back and see incidents like this all the time. I mean just in the surf of Libya this year, 348 bodies have been recovered. These are people in much similar situations. We know that, you know, that this location, the Bab el-Mandeb, has a reputation. It's known as the Gateway of Grief in the local dialect. You know, treacherous currents and storm conditions and all kinds of things contribute. And we run routinely into the hundreds of deaths every year that were recorded in our Missing Migrants Project just from this stretch of the Red Sea.

SHAPIRO: And it sounds like there's no real prospect of accountability for the people responsible for this.

MILLMAN: Well, especially not now, not in the middle of a war. You know, the Yemen and - when you say the Yemen's authorities, you're talking about at least two groups. And, you know, the contested territory and violence is sort of generalized across the country, not to mention cholera and terrible scourges of their own population. I can't imagine great resources are going to be devoted to prosecuting these smugglers or even identifying them, for that matter.

SHAPIRO: That's Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration. Thank you for joining us.

MILLMAN: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "OCELOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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