African Migrants Fire in Sana’a: Positions and Likely Trajectories of the Case

EPC | 17 Mar 2021

On March 7, 2021, hundreds of African migrants, mostly Ethiopian, were killed or injured in a horrific fire in a detention center run by the internationally-unrecognized Houthi authorities in Sana’a, Yemen. Until now, the Houthis are deliberately trying to cover up the circumstances of this tragic incident holding the International Organization for Migration (IOM) fully responsible. There were calls to give international humanitarian and human rights organizations immediate and unrestricted access to the location and casualties and open an independent and transparent investigation into the incident.

This paper reviews the conflicting accounts about the fire incident in the African migrant’s camp in Sana’a. The paper also monitors the different positions of all sides, including international organizations and countries of the victims. In addition, the paper explores the potential trajectories of this case and what the international community could do to hold those responsible accountable for this horrific incident.

Conflicting accounts

There were conflicting reports on the terrifying blaze in a detention center for hundreds of African migrants in Sana’a. Two conflicting accounts surfaced on what happened. The Houthis tried obstinately to promote a confused account, refused to accept responsibility of the fire and holding other parties responsible for the incident. The Houthi’s interior ministry was quick to issue a statement on March 7 saying that the incident was the result of a “fire that broke out at 2:30 pm, killing and injuring a number of illegal migrants and employees at the immigration and passports authority,” holding the IOM and the UN “fully responsible” for the incident, “for failure to play their role in providing shelters…for gathering, accommodating illegal immigrants, and repatriating them to their countries in line with international laws.”

On March 12, the Houthis announced that “43 bodies of the Ethiopians died in the blaze” were buried. Saba News Agency, which is under Houthi’s control, claimed that the “Ethiopian charge’ d affaires (did not mention his name) and a large crowd of Ethiopian and African communities” in Sana’a attended the funeral. Hussein al-Azzi, the deputy foreign minister in the unrecognized Houthi government, said the funeral “came in response to a request by the Ethiopian community in Yemen,” affirming “his ministry’s keenness to stay in contact with the Ethiopian foreign ministry and provide it with details about the incident.” He said that “investigations are still ongoing to reveal causes and details of the incident.”

On the same day, Saba carried out a statement by leaders of the Ethiopian, Eritrean, Somali, Djiboutian, and Sudanese communities in Sana’a claiming that the fire was an “accident that started with a fight between members of two communities. When one of the guards intervened, he was beaten, requiring intervention by a larger number of the Houthi anti-riot forces. This has caused a fire in the detention center, leading to 43 deaths and more than 200 injuries. 193 of the injured have already left hospitals.”

However, sources close to leaders of these communities in Sana’a affirmed that this statement was issued under pressure by Houthi authorities which have also organized a virtual press conference for them the next day to promote this account.

In its coverage of this press conference, the Houthi media outlets deliberately focused on what Abdallah al-Leithi, head of the Sudanese community in Sana’a, said in the conference. Al-Leithi said “about 800 migrants were in the center distributed on 5 hangers. Fire broke in hanger no. 1, leaving 44 deaths and 202 injuries. All the injured have left hospitals except 21 still under treatment, 4 are in critical condition.” He pointed out that “upon an agreement between (African) communities and (Houthi) authorities, 468 migrants were deported and 44 martyrs were buried officially after taking samples of their DNA to identify them. An unknown number of migrants have fled.”

Al-Leithi said the Houthi authorities “released 193 migrants and paid YER100, 000 each immediately after the incident.” However, Houthi media ignored statements by representative of the Ethiopian community Othman Gilto who “called for an international probe into the fire,” affirming that representatives of the African communities know nothing about the number of casualties and the cause of the blaze “except what authorities in Sana’a” tell them. Gilto pointed out that Houthi authorities informed them of deporting 468 people to Aden without any proof of this deportation, according to media outlets covering the press conference.

In contrast to the confused Houthi account, there is a different one by Ethiopian sources, African and Yemeni activists and international, regional and local organizations, notably Human Rights Watch, Rights Radar for Human Rights and Mwatana for Human Rights. This account was based on testimonies by some survivors and families of victims in which they said that Houthi authorities had waged months ago a campaign to detain African migrants under the pretext of illegal residence. The migrants were held in the Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority holding facility in terrible conditions to use them as a bargaining chip and pressure international organizations. Later on, Houthis gave migrants two options: fight on their side or pay money (YER150, 000). The detainees protested by going into a hunger strike. Armed Houthi men tried to end the migrants’ hunger strike by force. A fist-fight broke out between some of the migrants and the Houthi men. Soon after, Houthi forces began to fire bullets in the air, causing the fire and killing and injuring hundreds of the detainees. This is the account adopted by the internationally-recognized government.

Available evidence points out that the second account is closer to what has really happened. There were reports over the past months that Houthis have launched a campaign to detain African migrants, especially Ethiopians. They detained about 900 of these migrants (mostly from Oromo ethnicity) in the passport authority’s detention center in Sana’a in sub-human conditions. Detainees were subject to grave violations including starvation, denying them contact with their families, giving them two options: fight on the Houthis’ side or pay money. Guards intervened to end their hunger strike and got into a fist fight with detainees before getting help from anti-riot forces which used brutality as usual, firing projectiles and tear gas among protesters. This has caused a horrific fire that led to the death of more than 200 people and injuring double this number.

This horrible incident could be the result of an uncalculated error by Houthi security forces. However, no one can ignore insistence by the Houthi-controlled management of the detention center to close the center’s doors which prevented the detainees from fleeing and escape sure death.

No one can also ignore Houthis intentional delay and cover up about the cause of the fire. Houthi forces also surrounded hospitals where the injured are treated, detained eye witnesses and prevented any contact between migrants and their relatives outside the detention center. One day after the incident, Houthi forces fired shots in the air to disperse a group of family members who tried to organize a protest in front of the United Nations building in Sana’a. Finally, Houthis pressured leaders of the African communities in Sana’a to promote an account that exonerates the group and enhances the credibility of its account. All of this holds Houthis fully responsible for the crime.

Positions of different parties on the incident

From the outset, the Houthis tried to hold the International Organization for Migration (IOM) fully responsible for the fire of the African migrants. IOM, however, categorically rejected these accusations, pointing out that this incident has shown that the “UN Security Council must refer this case to the International Criminal Court” (Al Arabiya channel, March 10, 2021). António Vitorino, Director General of IOM, said in a statement published on IOM’s website on March 14, 2021: “IOM does not establish, manage or supervise detention centers in Yemen or anywhere else in the world. Our teams provided migrants essential services like food, healthcare and water that they otherwise would not have received. Conditions in the holding facility, which was three times over-capacity, were inhumane and unsafe.”

For its part, Yemen’s legitimate government, of course, sought to take advantage of the incident to enhance its position and mobilize the international community against its Houthi opponents. Therefore, it issued many statements condemning the blaze as Yemen’s Prime Minister, Maeen Abdulmalik, sent a special letter to his Ethiopian counterpart, Abiy Ahmed, on the incident on 12 March 2021, in which he stressed that “criminal and inhumane behavior of the Houthi group” does not represent the Yemeni people and is contrary to the spirit of cordiality and intimacy between the people in both countries. He stressed the necessity of establishing an international commission to investigate this crime and reveal its findings to the whole world. He also suggested that the “Houthi group should take the full responsibility for the crime as reports accuse the militia members of intentionally starting the fire in the detention center”.

While the Ethiopian government contented with stating that “it is closely monitoring the situation through its embassy in Muscat, Oman”, Foreign Minister of Ethiopia, Dina Mufti, reconfirmed in a press conference on 16 March, according to the Ministry’s Facebook page, that his ministry received reports on the killing and burying of 50 people in the incident, but “investigations are underway to identify the number of Ethiopian victims”. Somali government, as indicated by its ambassador to Yemen, Abdullah Hashi Al Shouri (“Independent Arabia”, 14 March 2021) declared its intention to quickly resume evacuating thousands of Somalis from Yemen by mid this month particularly in the wake of latest violations in prisons of Sana’a. It added that the last abuse was the use of bombs against detainees at the Passports and Naturalization Authority complex, who included 31 Somali citizens as the U.N secured the release 16 of them, 9 were already evacuated with 2 injuries, and 4 others were missing.

For its part, the U.N, according to its envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths’ last briefing in the Security Council on 16 March, called for an independent investigation into the fire incident. It reported that the incident left dozens of people killed with over than 170 seriously injured. In the same day, Human Rights Watch called on UN Group of Eminent International and Regional Experts on Yemen to include the incident in its current investigations into human rights violations in the country, accusing the Houthi group of firing unknown projectiles at a detention center to control protests organized by African migrants. The protests called for improving the living conditions of detainees but the incident led to the death of dozens of people. 

As part of the international reactions to the incident, Michael Aron, the British Ambassador to Yemen, said “OHCHR [Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights] and humanitarian agencies need immediate, unrestricted access to site and those injured. A credible, transparent, and independent investigation must be carried out, including a full account of those killed and injured,” he commented in a tweet. “It is the Houthis inhumane treatment of migrants - including the creation of overcrowded conditions at the center - that led to this terrible loss in human life. It is imperative that the Houthis change their policies towards migrants & provide them the basic dignity they deserve,” he added.  The same calls were made by many other international and global rights groups such as Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, Rights Radar foundation, and Yemen’s Mwatana Organization for Human Rights. They all called for carrying out an international inquiry into the fire incident and taking a serious and tangible action to hold the Houthis accountable for their deeds.

In parallel with this - even though limited - diplomatic action so far, scores of African migrants (predominantly Ethiopians) held demonstrations in front of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sana’a. Moreover, scores of African communities in some Western cities demanded an inquiry into this incident and requested additional measures to establish the circumstances of the death of their fellow citizens.

Potential trajectories of the case   

It is likely that developments with regard to the fire incident at the detention center of African migrants in Sana’a will develop along the three following potential paths:

1. International interaction with the case rises until the Houthis are convicted and held accountable for the crime.

Supported by Yemen’s legitimate government, Arab countries supporting it, and international and global rights groups, the countries of African migrants can take further moves to escalate the issue and place it on the top priorities and interests of Western policy-makers and international community. This is done with the aim of mobilizing global support for the issue and carrying out an international investigation into the incident. The issue can be raised at the U.N Human Rights Council and may be referred to the International Criminal Court in case the U.N Security Council adopts a resolution convicting the Houthis and holding them accountable for all what happened. 

2. The Houthis succeed in closing the case as part of a deal.

According to this scenario, the Houthis are capable of supporting their version of the incident by taking further measures such as the deportation of hundreds of illegal migrants from territories under their control with the presence and under the supervision of international organizations operating in Yemen. They may continue their efforts to influence representatives of African communities, and international organizations’ staff and/or approach the Ethiopian side in particular to convince it of the outcomes of the investigation the group already carried out, reach understandings in this regard or make a secret deal to end the case.

3. The case may be kept pending and Houthis are spared punishment   

This potential outcome is not very much different from what happened in other similar cases such as the bombing of a migrant detention center in Libya in July 2019.In case an independent probe is launched into this issue, which will probably take a long time, there are several factors that will limit the seriousness and firmness of the international interaction with the case to a certain degree, notably the different priorities and perspectives of the international community as a whole vis-à-vis Yemen’s file. Moreover, it might seem hard to reach a consensus among global and regional actors on the use of this issue as a pressure card against the Houthis either to curb their flagrant violations of human rights or to push them closer to the negotiating table.

However, it is important that the international community led by the Biden administration and its European allies should work together to condemn the Houthis’ barbaric treatment of African migrants, and exercise more pressure on them to start an independent investigation to find out what really happened where those responsible for the crime could be held accountable. There is a need also to urge the U.N and other international organizations to exercise pressure on the Houthi group to change its opportunistic and inhumane policies towards African migrants that strip them of their dignity, turn them into goods for killing, blackmail them psychologically, and restrict their freedom. This should ensure that the Houthis stop their repeated violations against those migrants, including among other things, attempts to recruit them as combatants in the group, and use them to achieve material gains and blackmail international human agencies operating in Yemen.

Conclusions

  • The Houthi group has deliberately concealed all circumstances and information surrounding the fire incident at a detention facility of African migrants in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. The group extremely pressured leaders of the African communities in Sana’a to support their version of the incident to exempt them from the criminal responsibility while it constantly maintained that the International Organization for Migration (IOM) should be fully held responsible for the incident. For its part, IOM has strongly denied these accusations.
  • For its part, Yemen’s legitimate government, of course, sought to take advantage of the incident to enhance its position and mobilize the international community against its Houthi opponents, suggesting that the Houthi group should take the full responsibility for the crime. Ethiopia, to which most victims of the incident belong, contented with stating that it was closely monitoring the situation and continuing its investigations to get more information on the circumstances of the incident and number of victims.  Other than that, the case has not yet received any international attention that fit the severity of the crime, despite repeated calls for carrying out an independent and transparent international inquiry into the incident and hold those responsible accountable for their crime.
  • The case will develop along three potential paths: First, international interaction with the case rises until the Houthis are convicted and held accountable for the crime. Second, the Houthis succeed in closing the case as part of a deal. Third, the case may be kept pending and Houthis are spared punishment. The last scenario is possible particularly given weak and unclear international reaction to this horrible incident.

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