Protests followed the fire in Yemen. Now Houthi leaders have expressed 'deep regrets' at what happened |Photo: Fawaz Salman / REUTERS
Protests followed the fire in Yemen. Now Houthi leaders have expressed 'deep regrets' at what happened |Photo: Fawaz Salman / REUTERS

In Yemen the leader of the Iran-backed Houthi group, which is fighting the government, has expressed "deep regret" over the migrant deaths in a fire last week. He said an investigation is under way, after the UN called for a probe into the incident.

"We express our deep regret over the accidental incident at the migrant detention center in Sanaa," a Houthi official, Hussein Al-Azi, told the Houthi-run Al Masirah television, according to a news agency report. Agence France Presse (AFP) says Al-Azi confirmed that 44 migrants had died in the fire and a further 193 had been injured. He said they were "investigating the reasons for the incident."

The UN envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, had earlier called for an "independent investigation into the cause of the fire," which the non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch blamed on "unidentified projectiles" they said were fired at the center by Houthis.

Also read: Yemen: Several killed in migrant detention center fire

A deadly fire broke out at a migrant detention center in Sanaa, Yemen on March 7, 2021 | Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS
A deadly fire broke out at a migrant detention center in Sanaa, Yemen on March 7, 2021 | Photo: Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Ethiopian migrants

Most of the migrants who died or were injured in the fire were originally from Ethiopia. According to HRW and AFP, the migrants had been protesting about overcrowded conditions at the camp, when the camp guards forced many of them into a hanger within the camp.

HRW said in a report that migrants in the hangar had said the first projectile "produced a lot of smoke and made their eyes water and sting." The second projectile they described as a "bomb," according to AFP, which proceeded to explode, causing the fire.

After the fire, AFP obtained footage from a survivor which purports to show "dozens of charred bodies piled on top of one another and strewn across the ground." In the background a person can be heard "crying out in prayer," AFP writes.

'Dozens of charred bodies'

HRW published a video containing graphic content on March 15.


Black smoke billows from a large hanger whose wall appears to have been bulldozed by a tractor. Flames can be seen glowing inside the building, guards and survivors walk around outside, some looking slightly dazed and some migrants lie on the floor in the foreground.

The migrants were being detained in a hanger at the Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority Holding Facility in Sanaa, Yemen.

According to HRW, after about 10-15 minutes in the fire, "people outside broke down the hanger’s door and walls and helped the surviving migrants get out."

'Horrific reminder'

Nadia Hardman, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW, said that "the Houthis' reckless use of weapons […] led to scores of Ethiopian migrants burning to death is a horrific reminder of the dangers migrants face in war-torn Yemen."

The Houthi rebels control much of Yemen, including the town of Sanaa. The UN Migration Agency IOM said that they estimate at least 6,000 migrants are being held at various detention centers like the one in Sanaa across the country.

According to HRW, at least 550 migrants were being held in the detention compound in Sanaa. Food was limited, migrants told HRW and they were given no mattresses to sleep on but could purchase one from the guards. Migrants told HRW that "the only way to be released was to pay about €235 fine to the guards."

Hunger strike

After weeks living in these conditions, some of the migrants decided to go on a hunger strike. A skirmish ensued, according to HRW, after they had refused both breakfast and lunch, and the security guards took the migrant organizers outside and allegedly beat them with sticks and their weapons. The migrants fought back, throwing plates and injuring one guard after striking him in the face.

Ethiopian migrants gather to protest their treatment in the war-torn country during a sit-in outside a compound of United Nations organizations in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen  |Photo: Fawaz Salman / REUTERS
Ethiopian migrants gather to protest their treatment in the war-torn country during a sit-in outside a compound of United Nations organizations in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen |Photo: Fawaz Salman / REUTERS

At that point, the Houthis allegedly locked up all the migrants in the hanger. The guards are then said to have returned with "security forces wearing the black, green and gray uniforms of the Houthi forces." And the guards told the detainees to say "their final prayers."

One survivor said there was "so much smoke," he talks of people being "roasted alive," and having to "step on their dead bodies to escape."

Forced to fight?

The IOM called on the Houthi security forces to give them access to the hospitals. On Tuesday, March 16, the IOM organized a flight out of Yemen from the government-controlled second city of Aden. On board were 140 Ethiopians who arrived in Addis Ababa soon afterwards. According to AFP, it was the "first flight IOM has facilitated since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic."

About 30 Ethiopians have been demonstrating their anger at the fire in front of the offices of various international organizations based in Aden, according to AFP. One of the protesters, going by the name of Osmane, told AFP that the Houthis had been feeding the migrants in detention in order to co-opt them into fighting with them on the frontline against the Saudi-backed government.

Also read: Yemen detention center fire highlights dangers for migrants

 

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