A deadly fire started in an overcrowded detention centre last week when Houthi security forces reportedly fired projectiles into a locked hangar. Migrants have staged demonstrations demanding a probe into the incident.
Human rights organisations say “scores” of migrants, mostly Ethiopian, have burned to death in Yemen's capital city, Sanaa, and hundreds more were injured, after Houthi rebels fired “unidentified projectiles” into an overcrowded detention facility on March 7.
Prior to the projectiles causing fire, a skirmish between guards and detainees had already broken out. The prisoners were protesting their conditions. The guards rounded up the organisers of the protests and beat them, and locked nearby migrants in a hangar, Yemen-based rights organisation Mwatana for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch reported.
Houthi security forces who then came to the facility launched two projectiles, the second of which started a fire, the rights organisations said, based on interviews with Ethiopian migrants.
“We tried to escape but the ward doors were locked, and we were cramped inside. I could hear the sound of explosions and the sounds of my friends groaning…but I could not help anyone,” one survivor told Mwatana.
The total number of migrants who died is still not clear.
Analysing videos of the incident, Human Rights Watch reported that ‘scores’ were dead, while one Ethiopian survivor said that the fire killed around 450 people, and that over sixty more died in the hospital afterwards.
The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) said that 170 people were treated for injuries in a statement released last week, though the numbers may be higher.
There were nearly 900 migrants in the overcrowded facilities, and more than 350 near the hangar area where the fire broke out, the IOM said.
Security forces were reportedly re-arresting migrants who were not severely injured, according to witnesses, and some of the survivors were taken to the borders between areas controlled by Houthis and areas controlled by the Saudi-backed, internationally recognised government, and dropped off there, Mwatana told TRT World.
The Houthis also increased their security presence in the hospital after the fire.
“Those who are in hospital are still guarded and even the burials that took place last Friday happened with the presence of security forces,” Osamah Alfakih of Mwantana told TRT World.
Migrants have staged protests in Sanaa to demand an investigation into the deadly fire.
“The Houthis’ reckless use of weapons that led to scores of Ethiopian migrants burning to death is a horrific reminder of the dangers migrants face in war-torn Yemen,” said Nadia Hardman, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“The Houthi authorities need to hold those responsible to account and stop holding migrants in abysmal detention facilities where their lives and well-being are at risk.”
The Houthis’ “ministry of the interior” published a statement holding IOM and the UN “fully responsible for [the fire due to its] failure to play its role in providing shelters designated for collecting and accommodating illegal immigrants, and deporting them to their countries in accordance with international laws.”
In early March, a large group of migrants held in the Houthi-controlled Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority Immigration Holding Facility (IPNA) in Yemen’s capital, started a hunger strike to protest arbitrary detention and their living conditions.
“We were arrested without doing anything that harms Yemen’s security,” an Ethiopian survivor, who did not want to reveal his name for security reasons, said.
“We were imprisoned for four to six months, without being charged or deported back to our country.”
The guards also reportedly blackmailed detainees, asking those arrested in Sanaa to pay 70,000 Yemeni riyals ($279).
“Bargains for military recruitment took place too,” said the survivor of the fire. “Some were taken to fighting fronts and died there.”
Hundreds of thousands of Ethiopian and other migrants make the perilous journey across the Red Sea to the Arab peninsula to escape economic difficulties, human rights abuses, drought and other difficult conditions and in search of work opportunities in the Gulf states.
However, their dreams and hopes for better lives often turn into nightmares.
“Migrants have been subjected to different types of violations and abuses even before the armed conflict [in Yemen] started in September 2014,” Alfakih said.
“The migrants are subjected to human trafficking, torture, and sexual violence, and authorities failed to protect them. These violations continue due to impunity and the lack of accountability for years.”
The start of the war in Yemen in 2014 has compounded the difficulties and dehumanising conditions faced by migrants as they are caught between Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
In 2020, Houthis violently expelled Ethiopian migrants from northern Yemen toward Saudi Arabia using bullets and rockets. They were then shot at by Saudi border guards. Dozens were killed.
Those who weren’t were taken to detention facilities with “horrifying” conditions.
“All the detention centres they use are pretty uniform with overcrowded conditions, limited to or no access to toilet facilities. Overflowing toilets or toilets don’t work. Inadequate food. People are given a piece of bread three times a day. [People are] forced to use the piping in the toilets as a water source to drink from,” Hardman told TRT World regarding the Saudi detention centres in October.