Migrant survivors of a deadly fire at a detention center in Yemeni capital Sanaa recall the horror they witnessed at the hands of Houthi rebels.
While the total number of migrants who died in the fire on March 7 remains unconfirmed, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said over 170 people have been treated for injuries, with many remaining in critical condition.
“We were arrested without doing anything that harms Yemen’s security,” an Ethiopian survivor, who refused to reveal his name for security reasons, told Anadolu Agency. “We were imprisoned for 4-6 months, without being charged or deported back to our country.”
The Ethiopian national said he and other migrants went on strike to demand deportation to Ethiopia. “A violent argument started between the guards and us where we managed to push the guards out of the hangar prison,” he recalled.
“The guards, however, opened fire and killed two people immediately. This angered the rest of the prisoners. Then larger military forces came and opened fire again and threw grenades towards us, causing a huge fire that killed around 450 people,” he said.
The following day, 63 more migrants died at hospitals, bringing the total number of deaths to 513, mainly Ethiopians.
According to the IOM Yemen, nearly 900 migrants, mostly Ethiopians, were in the overcrowded facility when the fire broke out.
“While the cause of the fire is still unconfirmed, its impact is clearly horrific,” said Carmela Godeau, IOM’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Godeau called for urgent humanitarian access to the survivors to help fulfil their health needs.
“We are facing challenges accessing the injured due to an increased security presence in the hospitals,” she said. “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.”
The Ethiopian survivor said prisoners were “subjected to blackmail” by Houthi rebels.
“Houthis asked those who were arrested in Sanaa to pay 70,000 Yemeni riyals ($279) and those who were arrested outside Sanaa to pay 150,000 riyals ($570) to get out of prison,” he said. “Bargains for military recruitment took place too. Some were taken to fighting fronts and died there.”
He continued, “In the hospitals, bargaining began again and they asked us to tell the media that a Saudi plane bombed us, but we refused. After that, we were prevented from visits, and some of us were taken to unknown places.”
Currently, over 10,000 Oromo refugees reside in refugee camps in Yemen, including Sanaa and Aden.
Migrants have staged several demonstrations in Yemen to demand a probe into the deadly fire.
“The Ethiopian community in Yemen has been organizing demonstrations in front of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, but they have not yet got any response,” Gammada Sute, Director of the Oromia Future Network, told Anadolu Agency.
Sute said officials with the UN refugee agency UNHCR met with community members and offered them to end the strike in exchange for resettling them in Yemen and enable refugees to travel to a third country.
There was no comment from the UNHCR on the claim.
“Some 160 prisoners were released after the Houthis gave them 100,000 Yemeni riyals in exchange for their silence and dispersing the demonstrations,” Sute said.
The Ethiopian Foreign Ministry confirmed the fire through its spokesman Dina Mufti, but without specifying the number of deaths or injuries.
In a statement, Mufti said his ministry was working closely with the IOM to help survivors of the accident.
In August 2020, Human Rights Watch accused Houthi rebels of forcibly expelling thousands of Ethiopian migrants from northern Yemen using COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext, killing dozens while forcing them to the Saudi border.
According to the New York-based rights group, Saudi border guards then fired on the fleeing migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area.
In October 2020, Amnesty International published a report exposing horrifying details about the treatment of Ethiopian migrants detained in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
According to the London-based group, with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Houthi rebels expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrant workers and their families to Saudi Arabia, where they were held in life-threatening conditions.
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