A fire at a migrant detention center in Sanaa, Yemen on March 7, 2021 killed at least 44 people | Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
A fire at a migrant detention center in Sanaa, Yemen on March 7, 2021 killed at least 44 people | Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

A leader of the migrant community in Yemen has called for an international probe into the deadly fire at a detention center. The blaze had killed at least 44 people, most of them Ethiopian migrants, earlier this month.

In a news conference in the Yemeni capital Sanaa on Saturday (March 13), Othman Gilto, the head of the Ethiopian community in Yemen, blamed "negligence'' by the Houthi rebels who control the capital for the fire.

Gilto also blamed the United Nations, whose International Organization for Migration (IOM) and other agencies are present in Yemen. The fire injured more than 200 people, Gilto said.

When the fire took place on March 7, some 900 mostly Ethiopian migrants were detained at the facility, including 350 inside a warehouse, according to the IOM.

"Conditions in the holding facility, which was three times overcapacity, were inhumane and unsafe,'' António Vitorino, IOM's director general said in an online statement from Sunday.

At least 43 of the dead were buried in a Sanaa cemetery on Friday "amid tight security," the Associated Press (AP) news agency reported. "Women from the migrant community were seen screaming and crying while ambulances, carrying the bodies, arrived from a funeral service at a major mosque," according to AP.

Last year, there were some 390,000 foreign-born residents in Yemen, according to the IOM, around 1.3% of Yemen's overall population of some 30 million.

Difficult identification

Abdallah al-Leithi, head of the Sudanese community in Sanaa, told AP that many of the dead lacked IDs and could not be identified. She also said that most "had not given their real names'' on documentation before the fire.

At the time of writing, there were no comments from the Houthi rebels.

According to IOM Yemen spokesperson Olivia Headon, the agency called for those responsible for the tragedy to be held accountable.

"We stand with the victims of the fire. Migrants urgently need more protection and support in Yemen, or we will continue to see them suffer and lives lost. A step in this direction is to ensure that the victims of the fire and their families have the accountability they deserve following the horrific incident," Headon told AP.

Displaced children in Sanaa, Yemen | Photo: Yahya Arhab/EPA
Displaced children in Sanaa, Yemen | Photo: Yahya Arhab/EPA

Tear gas against protest

Survivors and local rights campaigners say the deadly blaze erupted when guards fired tear gas into the crowded warehouse. The apparent goal of the action was to "end a protest against alleged abuses and ill-treatment at the facility," AP reported.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels neither stated the cause of the fire nor mentioned a protest or gave a final death toll. They had said an investigation was opened but no conclusions have been announced. The Houthis also prevented the IOM from accessing injured migrants at hospitals, the IOM said.

According to the AP, the rebels also accused the IOM of "not providing shelter for migrants and transfer them to their home countries." In its online statement, the IOM said it "does not establish, manage or supervise detention centres in Yemen" but "provided migrants essential services like food, health care and water."

The IOM statement further said that it has been working to restart a voluntary return of migrants in Sanaa to Ethiopia, which it described as a "lifeline for many stranded migrants in dangerous situations.''

Map of Yemen | Credit: InfoMigrants
Map of Yemen | Credit: InfoMigrants

Deadly transit country

Despite a growing number of Africans giving up on the so-called "Eastern Route" between the Horn of Africa and the Gulf countries via Yemen, the country's over six-year-old civil war has not prevented migrants from entering the country: Tens of thousands of migrants continue to make the journey across the waters of the Horn of Africa to try and find work as housekeepers, construction workers and servants in Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf countries. 

In 2019, some 138,000 migrants embarked on the arduous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen; last year, the figure plummeted to 37,000 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this month, at least 20 migrants died after smugglers threw them overboard during a voyage to Yemen from Djibouti, IOM said. It was the third such incident in the Gulf of Aden in six months. According to the IOM, more than 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January.

With AP


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