Last Sunday, 7 March 2021, a fire raged through a detention centre in Sanaa, the capital of Yemen, killing at least 44 migrants and injuring more than 180. Although the cause of the fire is still being disputed, witness reports indicate a fire broke out due to security forces repressing a protest staged by detainees.
When the fire broke out, the facility held at least 900 immigrants, mostly from Ethiopia. The Immigration, Passports and Naturalization Authority complex is heavily overcrowded. Inmates are usually deprived of the minimal health and safety requirements as they remain cramped up in the basement and rooms of the buildings. The fire started in the hangar, where about 350 people were detained due to the overcrowding in the main building. Many of the detainees had started a hunger-strike since the beginning of the month to protest the ill-prison conditions and torture.
Survivors have described dozens of people being trapped by the flames, unable to escape. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) was on site when the fire broke out and immediately provided assistance to the victims – alongside the Ministry of Public Health. Carmela Godeau, IOM’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa called for urgent humanitarian access to the migrants injured by the fire:
“As many migrants are in a critical condition, meeting their health needs must be an urgent priority. We are facing challenges accessing the injured due to an increased security presence in the hospitals. Humanitarians and health workers must be given access to support the treatment of those affected by the fire and others who have been receiving long-term care from IOM and partners.”
While 8 people were declared dead by IOM on Sunday, Sanaa Mohammed Nour, a leading figure amongst the Eritrean community in Sanaa, has confirmed there are at least 44 deaths. These numbers could not yet be confirmed by IOM because the Houthi rebels surrounded the building after the fire and did not allow the organisation to have access to the injured at the hospital. It is likely that the final death toll is much higher.
The Houthi rebels have been in control of Sanaa since September 2014, following widespread protests against the government. Subsequently, the Houthis overthrew the Yemeni government and the conflict escalated in spring 2015, when Saudi-Arabia and its allies launched air-strikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. According to the UN, the war in Yemen has created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
The cause of the fire last weekend remains unclear, as the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have not revealed any information so far. Immediately following the fire, allegations were made that it was caused by air strikes on the Yemeni capital which coincided with the outbreak of the fire. Some observers claim Saudi Arabia may have conducted the air strikes in retaliation to a series of drone and ballistic missile attacks carried out against multiple locations in Saudi Arabia, for which Houthi forces have claimed responsibility. However, new information now reveals that the Saudi-led coalition air strikes only damaged nearby buildings nearby and that they did not trigger the fire.
A number of detainees who were able to escape told Mawatana officials that they saw Houthi rebels firing projectiles and tear gas through the windows of the ward where they were imprisoned. They recall pillows of smoke billowing and screams of their inmates who could not escape. Other immigrants were luckier as they broke down the prison door and escaped the fire.
In the beginning of March, hundreds of detainees had gone on a hunger strike to demand their freedom and to end the ill-treatment and abuses they faced in the centre. On Sunday, the security forces were unable to control the protestors who were shouting and banging on the cell doors. According to survivors and an anonymous IOM official, an anti-riot squad was called in, which used tear gas and shot other unidentified projectiles into the hangar; ultimately leading to the catastrophic fire.
Most of the immigrants detained at the centre in Sanaa were arrested by the rebels in the northern province while they were trying to cross the border to Saudi-Arabia. Despite the ongoing conflict, Yemen remains a transit country for tens of thousands of migrants taking the route through Yemen from the Horn of Africa to find a better life in the oil-rich Gulf countries.
According to the IOM, Covid-19 has decreased the numbers of arrivals drastically – from over 138,000 migrants in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020.
These migrants, who leave their homes in hope of finding work have no access to basic services and protection. Many of them are arbitrarily arrested by the Houthi rebels and are forced to either pay a ransom, or to join the Houthis to regain their freedom. Consequently, they are also vulnerable to trafficking rings, which are believed to be linked to armed groups involved in the Yemen conflict. Earlier this year, at least 20 migrants were killed after smugglers threw 80 people overboard in the sea during their journey from Djibouti to Yemen.
IOM is calling for the release of all migrants held in the detention facility in Sanaa. Meanwhile, Houthis officials accused the UN and IOM of bearing the responsibility for the casualties because they failed to house and deport the migrants.
“This fire is a horrific addition to the long list of violations migrants and refugees have faced in Yemen during this war, and a horrific addition to the long list of violations” by the Houthis, commented Radhya al-Mwtawakel, head of Mwatana for Human Rights.
According to Mwatana, the Houthi rebels had been demanding ransoms to free the detainees in the past week. After the first, the Houthis transferred many of the dead bodies to unknown areas and in some cases they did not allow the families of the injured to visit their loved one’s who made it to the hospital.
On March 8th, the day following the fire, some of the families of the victims tried to stage a protest outside the building of the UN in Sanaa but they were met with brutality as Houthi rebels fired live ammunition in the air to end the protest according to Mawatana.
IOHR Director, Valerie Peay commented:
“IOHR has been communicating with sources on the ground in Yemen who continue to document the crimes committed against innocent immigrants by Houthi rebels who disregard basic human rights and continue to obstruct the work of organizations such as the UN and IOM”