By Paulo Santos, Horn of Africa Analyst

Last week, a devastating fire swept through a migrant detention center in Yemen’s capital, resulting in the tragic loss of numerous lives, predominantly among Ethiopian migrants.

Othman Gilto, a representative of the Ethiopian community in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital, is urgently calling for a thorough international investigation to uncover the details of the incident that led to at least 44 fatalities, primarily Ethiopian migrants. During a press conference held on Saturday, Gilto attributed the tragedy to the negligence of the Houthi rebels, who hold control over the capital, as well as to the United Nations, despite its presence and aid agencies in Yemen. He further reported that over 200 individuals sustained injuries due to the fire.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) disclosed that approximately 900 migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia, were housed in the detention facility at the time of the blaze. This number significantly exceeded the center’s capacity by threefold, with 350 individuals situated inside a warehouse. The fire incident occurred on a Sunday, and by the following Friday, at least 43 of the deceased were interred at a Sanaa cemetery amid heightened security measures and growing concerns that the death toll might continue to rise. Distraught women from the migrant community were witnessed in anguish as ambulances transported bodies from a major mosque following a funeral service.

Abdallah al-Leithi, leader of the Sudanese community in Sanaa, conveyed the challenges in identifying many of the victims due to a lack of proper identification documents, noting that most had not provided their real names on official documents prior to the tragic event. The Houthi rebels, entrenched in a protracted conflict with the internationally recognized Yemeni government supported by a Saudi-led military coalition, have not issued any statements regarding the incident.

Survivors and local human rights advocates suggest that the fire was ignited when guards launched tear gas into the overcrowded warehouse in an attempt to quell a protest against purported mistreatment and abuses at the facility. While the Houthis have initiated an investigation into the incident, they have not confirmed the cause of the fire, acknowledged the protest, or provided a conclusive casualty report. They have also restricted access for the UN migration agency to the injured migrants in hospitals.

Carmela Godeau, the IOM’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa, emphasized the critical condition of many migrants and the immediate need to address their health needs. She underscored the challenges in accessing the injured due to increased security at hospitals and called for unhindered access for humanitarian and health workers to aid those affected by the fire and others in need of long-term care.

Despite the ongoing six-year war in Yemen, migrants continue to enter the country, aiming to reach Saudi Arabia in search of employment opportunities. In 2019, approximately 138,000 individuals journeyed from the Horn of Africa to Yemen, a figure that dramatically decreased to 37,000 in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The IOM reported over 2,500 migrants arriving in Yemen from Djibouti in January alone.

The agency is actively collaborating with the Ethiopian government to reinstate its “Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program,” facilitating the return of migrants to their home country. In Aden, over 6,000 individuals have registered for return, with 1,100 expected to proceed in the upcoming weeks. Discussions are also underway to resume a “humane voluntary returns process” with authorities in Sanaa.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Send this to a friend