According to local witnesses, the boats sank roughly 30 minutes after leaving Tuesday due to overloading and heavy swells. The vessels sank off Godoria in the Obock region of northeastern Djibouti.
The International Organization for Migration said that by Wednesday morning the Djiboutian coast guard had recovered 30 bodies and found 16 survivors.
An 18-year-old survivor told the agency’s staff he had boarded one of the boats with 130 people on it, including 16 women. The teenager said he did not have any information about the second boat.
Search and rescue operations continue at the site as dozens of people are still missing. The migration agency said its team was working with local officials to search for survivors.
“This tragic event demonstrates the risks that vulnerable migrants face as they innocently search for better lives,” Lalini Veerassamy, the migration agency’s Djibouti chief of mission, said in a statement.
The boats were headed to Yemen, a deadly route for migrants from Horn of Africa countries traveling to the Gulf of Aden in search of work, with Saudi Arabia being the top destination.
The UN migration agency said it had recorded at least 199 drownings in the Djibouti Obock region since 2014. It added that at least 156 people died in sea tragedies last year along the Horn of Africa-to-Yemen route farther offshore than Obock.
Nearly 100,000 African migrants entered Yemen in 2017, according to the agency. Most start out from Ethiopia and some from Somalia. Those embarking on this route are usually under 25, and many are children.