More than 74,000 Africans fled to Yemen this year, a 50 percent increase over 2008 despite instability in the country, according to figures issued on Friday by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.
Upheaval and economic strains in the Horn of Africa fueled a rise in migrants paying smugglers and undertaking the hazardous sea crossing, said UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic.
"In some cases they are beaten, raped, killed or just thrown overboard into shark-infested waters," he said, describing the routes across the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea as "the busiest and the deadliest one in the world."
Many Africans make the dangerous journey to Yemen in the hope of finding jobs in Saudi Arabia or further afield.
Yemen, which is fighting a Shi'ite rebellion in the north and separatist unrest in the south, said its security forces backed by warplanes killed up to 30 al Qaeda militants on Thursday. A security source said the operations had foiled a planned series of suicide bombings.
Unlike in previous years, Somalis did not account for the majority of people arriving in Yemen in 2009, despite fighting around their capital Mogadishu. A total of 32,800 entered Yemen this year.
More than 42,000 Ethiopians, twice the number recorded in 2008, traveled to Yemen but most went on to the Gulf states in search of jobs, Mahecic said.
Somalis are automatically granted refugee status on arrival in Yemen but people from other countries including Ethiopia must have their status as refugees determined before they can apply for asylum.
"The vast majority of Ethiopians did not approach the (UNHCR) reception centres as they had no intent to seek asylum," Mahecic said. "However, we believe that some of them may have avoided approaching the centres, fearing arrest and detention."
A five-year-old drought which continued in 2009 has caused widespread hunger in Ethiopia, which has a population of 83 million, along with other East African countries [ID:nLM526117]
At least 309 people drowned or were killed during their sea voyage from the Horn of Africa this year, down from 590 last year, although the UNHCR said final figures on people who went missing in 2009 were not yet available.