A Houthi-controlled detention centre holding African migrants and refugees in Sana’a, Yemen erupted into flames on March 7th following a protest and demand for better living conditions. Circumstances of an overcrowded and unsanitary building prompted the migrants and refugees to coordinate a hunger strike against the facility and guards. Reports and details retrieved by news organization Al Jazeera confirm that security forces under the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels are allegedly taking responsibility for instigating the devastating assault with tear gas canisters against the facility. The officers involved executed these actions without prior permission from the upper chain of command or superior leaders. One of the three tear gas canisters reportedly landed on a foam mattress, causing a blazing fire to spread throughout the building, killing 45 innocent people and injuring more than 200.
The population of Yemen has been preoccupied with the Civil War since the Arab Spring erupted across the MENA region in 2011. Overrun by a sense of optimism and eagerness for change, the Yemeni population ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh after decades of autocratic domination. When Vice President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi took over a crumbling state, the Houthi rebels, backed by the Iranian government, partnered with the former president to force Hadi into exile. The Houthis have since captured and controlled much of northern Yemen from the Saudi coalition, including the capital Sana’a.
Already a fractured nation, the disaster in Yemen has been exacerbated by regional proxy competition. The war has constituted the greatest humanitarian crisis globally with famine and starvation transpiring across the populace. Despite conflict and political instability altering all activity on the ground, along with prior warnings of danger, migrants and refugees from the horn of Africa frequently cross through Yemen on a journey to the Gulf states for a better life and opportunity. Thousands flee from the persecution and conditions of their home countries only to become susceptible to kidnapping, torture, and abuse while attempting to navigate the route through Yemen’s perilous terrain.
Documentation obtained by AFP news agency and exposed by Al Jazeera reveals survivors’ firsthand testimony of the incident and features brutal scenes of people crying in agony and lying in front of the facility burned and bruised. Although unassociated with any faction in the conflict, survivors from the footage claimed Houthi officers threatened to place them on the front lines to aid their war effort if they were to strike against the detention centre. When the detainees refused to comply with the security forces, the guards gathered hundreds of them into the building and fired projectiles at them without warrant from the upper command, ultimately causing a devastating fire and killing dozens of people when a tear gas canister landed on the mattress.
The Houthis have since released a statement on their exclusive Saba news agency organization, recognizing liability for the attack and expressing repentance for the group’s negligence. The statement also claimed that 11 members of the security forces as well as senior officials are actively detained and are circumstantially going to be tried in court for the allegations of involvement. Ultimately, the Houthis acknowledge that members of the security forces responded improperly with violence and brutality, exacerbating the outcome of the detainees’ protest against the centre.
The United Nations has since called for an independent investigation of the fire that deeply distressed the migrant and refugee community in Yemen. Martin Griffiths, the UN envoy for Yemen, released a statement to the Security Council that this event serves as a reminder of the atrocities the migrant community faces daily on a global scale. In war-torn Yemen, migrants and refugees are largely exposed and defenseless to the vulnerabilities that come with war as the nation continues to battle its way through the sixth year of conflict.