Human Rights

Houthis caused Yemen blaze that killed migrants: HRW

By Al-Mashareq and AFP

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Members representing African communities in Yemen gather to speak in front of the offices of the International Organisation for Migration in Sanaa on March 13, following a March 7 fire in a holding facility. Human Rights Watch says 'unidentified projectiles' launched by the Houthis caused the blaze. [Mohammed Huwais/AFP]

Human Rights Watch said Tuesday (March 16) that "unidentified projectiles" launched by the Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) caused a March 7 blaze that killed dozens of migrants at a holding facility in Sanaa.

Scores of migrants burned to death "after Houthi security forces launched unidentified projectiles into an immigration detention centre in Sanaa, causing a fire", HRW said in a statement.

It said inmates -- most of them Ethiopian migrants -- had been protesting against overcrowding when camp guards rounded up hundreds of them into a hangar and fired two projectiles into the building.

Hundreds were being treated in hospitals in Sanaa where a "heavy security presence" had posed access problems for humanitarian agencies, HRW said.

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Hundreds of migrants, mostly Ethiopians, were held in cramped conditions by Houthi forces in Yemen. When they protested their conditions, the Houthis fired unidentified projectiles into the detention centre, causing a fire that killed scores. [HRW]

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

"The Houthi authorities need to hold those responsible to account and stop holding migrants in abysmal detention facilities where their lives and well-being are at risk," she said.

'Say your final prayers'

In a Tuesday report, HRW said it had spoken with five Ethiopian migrants detained in the Immigration, Passport and Naturalisation Authority Holding Facility in Sanaa where the deadly incident occurred.

The detainees described the conditions as cramped and unsanitary, with up to 550 migrants in a hangar in the facility compound.

They said they were not given mattresses to sleep on but could purchase a mattress from the guards. Food and drinking water were limited, forcing them to drink from the faucets above the squat toilets.

After weeks living in the overcrowded facility, the detainees organised a hunger strike to protest the conditions and their continued detention.

They said the only way to be released was to pay 70,000 YR ($280) to the guards. Migrants also described verbal abuse by the guards, including racial slurs, threats and frequent swearing.

On March 7, they refused to eat breakfast or lunch. A skirmish ensued during which detainees said the security guards identified the protest organisers, took them outside and beat them with sticks and firearms.

The guards then rounded up the migrants nearby and locked them in the hangar, the detainees said, later returning with members of the Houthi forces.

They said the guards told the detainees to say their "final prayers".

One member of the newly arrived force climbed onto the roof of the hangar, and launched two projectiles into it.

HRW said it could not verify the type of projectiles used, but the witness accounts indicate the possible use of smoke grenades, teargas cartridges, or stun grenades, also called "flash-bang" devices.

Thousands of migrants stranded

The International Organisation for Migration said more than 350 migrants, most of them from Ethiopia, were in the hangar area where the fire broke out.

Following the incident, the IOM urged the Houthis to provide unimpeded access to those injured in the blaze, saying its impact was "clearly horrific", with more than 170 people hurt, over half of them seriously, and as many as 60 killed.

It called for the release of all migrants from the facility, along with "renewed commitment to providing safe, predictable movement options for migrants".

In correspondence with HRW in which he attempted to deflect blame for the incident, Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam described the tragedy as "a normal result that occurs in similar incidents all over the world".

Restrictions on movement imposed during the coronavirus pandemic have led to a reduction in migrant arrivals in Yemen from more than 138,000 in 2019 to just over 37,500 in 2020.

But they also have led to "thousands of migrants becoming stranded with little access to basic services or protection", the IOM said.

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