Migrants Demand International Probe Into Deadly Yemen Fire

Some 900 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, were detained at the facility – including 350 inside a warehouse – when the fire took place on Sunday

Members representing African communities in Yemen gather to speak in front of the offices of the International Organization for Migration in Sanaa, on Saturday.
Members representing African communities in Yemen gather to speak in front of the offices of the International Organization for Migration in Sanaa, on Saturday.Credit: AFP

A leader of the migrant community in the Yemeni capital on Saturday called for an international probe into a fire that tore through a detention center last week, killing at least 44 people, mostly Ethiopian migrants.

In a news conference in Sanaa, Othman Gilto, who heads the Ethiopian community, blamed “negligence” by the Houthi rebels who control the capital, as well as the United Nations, which has aid agencies present in Yemen. The fire also injured more than 200 people, he said.

Some 900 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, were detained at the facility — including 350 inside a warehouse — when the fire took place on Sunday, according to the International Organization for Migration. That was three times the facility’s capacity, it added.

At least 43 of the dead were buried in a Sanaa cemetery on Friday amid tight security. Women from the migrant community were seen screaming and crying while ambulances, carrying the bodies, arrived from a funeral service at a major mosque.

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

There were no immediate comments from the Houthis.

The UN migration agency has called for those responsible for the tragedy to be held accountable, said Olivia Headon, the agency's spokeswoman in Yemen.

"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," she said.

Survivors and local rights campaigners say the deadly blaze erupted when guards fired tear gas into the crowded warehouse, trying to end a protest against alleged abuses and ill-treatment at the facility.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels did not state the cause of the fire, mention a protest or give a final casualty toll. They had said an investigation was opened but no conclusions have been announced. The Houthis also prevented the UN migration agency from accessing injured migrants at hospitals, the agency said.

Yemen’s six-year-old civil war has not prevented migrants from entering the country, desperate to make their way to neighboring Saudi Arabia to find jobs as housekeepers, servants and construction workers.

Some 138,000 migrants embarked on the arduous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2019, but the figure plummeted to 37,000 last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January, according to the IOM.

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