Calls for international probe into fire at Sanaa detention centre

A blaze that tore through a migrant detention centre in Yemen’s capital last week killed dozens of people, mostly Ethiopians.

Ethiopian migrants
Some 138,000 migrants embarked on the journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2019, but the figure plummeted to 37,000 last year because of the pandemic [File: Wael al-Qubati/Reuters]

A leader of the Ethiopian community in Yemen’s capital has called for an international investigation into a fire that killed at least 44 people, mostly Ethiopian migrants, as it tore through a detention centre last week.

In a news conference in Sanaa, Othman Gilto on Saturday 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 held at the facility – including 350 inside a warehouse – when the blaze took place on Sunday, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). 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 and fears the death toll could rise. 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 identity documentation 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, who have been locked in a protracted war with the country’s internationally-recognised government that is backed by a Saudi-led military coalition.

Survivors and local rights campaigners say the fire erupted when guards fired tear gas into the crowded warehouse, trying to end a protest against alleged abuses and ill-treatment at the facility, according to The Associated Press news agency.

The Houthis 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, according to the IOM.

“As many migrants are in a critical condition, meeting their health needs must be an urgent priority. We are facing challenges accessing the injured due to an increased security presence in the hospitals,” Carmela Godeau, the IOM’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Humanitarians and health workers must be given access to support the treatment of those affected by the fire and others who have been receiving long-term care from IOM and partners,” added Godeau.

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

Some 138,000 people 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. More than 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January, according to the IOM.

The agency said it has been working with the government of Ethiopia to restart its “Voluntary Humanitarian Return [VHR] programme to the country”.

So far in Aden alone, more than 6,000 people have been registered to return; 1,100 are expected to do so in the coming weeks, the IOM said. It has also been discussing the resumption of a “humane voluntary returns process with the authorities in Sanaa”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies