Dozens of African migrants killed in Sanaa fire

SANAA, Yemen — 44 Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees in a Yemeni detention center were killed in a deadly fire last Sunday while over 180 were injured, according to the latest casualty statistics released by the head of the Eritrean community in Sanaa, Sanaa Mohammed Nour. According to a statement she gave to the Associated Press, the fire started when guards threw tear gas into the crowded hanger that housed over 350 migrants in an effort to quell a migrant protest. Nour, however, fears the death toll could be much higher as many injured migrants are now in critical condition. Survivors of the fire claimed dozens were trapped and unable to escape the blaze. The Iran-backed Houthi government has made no statement thus far concerning the fire, and prevented the International Organization of Migration (IOM) from investigating in the facility.

The detention center, located on the outskirts of the Houthi capital, holds 900 African migrants, has been rife with human rights abuse allegations. Many detainees report frequent instances of sexual and physical abuse as well as lack of regular access to food, medical care, or sanitation. Worsening conditions over the past few months have led to migrant protests within the facility. Hundreds of detainees went on hunger strike to protest inhumane conditions, according to an IOM official. The day prior to the fire, 350 migrants were moved to a hanger due to overcrowding, as tensions between guards and detainees rose. According to the Associated Press, on Sunday morning, detainees launched a protest within the hanger, and guards, unable to contain the protest, deployed an anti-riot squad who fired tear gas into the hanger, starting the deadly fire. This particular migrant detention center, however, is not alone in its allegations of inhumane conditions and abuse.

Detention centers throughout the country are receiving attention for flagrant human rights abuses against detainees. Presently, Yemen is in the throes of civil war where members of the Houthi movement backed by Iran fight for control of the country against the Yemeni government, supported by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Houthi rebels and the Yemeni government, alike, use facilities like the one in Sanaa to detain African migrants crossing Yemen hoping to reach Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf Arab states. Such African migrants, especially Ethiopians, are fleeing their home countries due to political persecution and human rights abuses perpetrated by their government. By February 2018, Yemen was home to around 281,000 refugees. According to Human Rights Watch, officials have tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa. In the same article, detainees reported that guards beat them with steel rods, whipped them, threatened to kill or deport them, sexually assaulted women, girls, and young boys, and executed at least two men. Officials confiscated money, personal belongings, and refugee documents from detainees. Left without advocates, migrants have been powerless to stop these exploitations. In an interview with Al Jazeera, a female detainee vividly recounts watching two of her friends being raped and beaten by multiple guards. Another inmate describes the sexual assault of young boys taken at night, and returning to the crowded main building in tears, unable to sit.

Despite this, little has been done to correct these abuses, partially due to the government’s preoccupation with civil war, and partially because such migrant facilities haven’t received much attention in the media. With the recent fire, however, there are national calls for intervention as well as international investigations in these Yemeni migrant centers. In a press conference in Sanaa, a representative of the Ethiopian community blamed the disaster on “negligence” by the Houthi rebels who control the capital, as well as the United Nations, which currently conducts work within Yemen’s borders. Shortly after the fire, the IOM announced it would begin work with Yemeni officials to restart its “Voluntary Humanitarian Return [VHR] programme”. In this capacity, IMO will work with the Yemeni government to ensure the safe voluntary return of migrants in such facilities to their home country. At present, over 6000 refugees have signed up for the program, according to Al Jazeera. More are expected to register over the next few weeks.

Maria Jeanette Psarakis
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