News Analysis: Migrant community organizer says more than 350 mainly Ethiopians perished in Yemen detention fire

By Bileh Jelan @bilehjelan

Addis Abeba, March 09/2021 – Abdullah, an organizer of Ethiopian migrant community in the war-torn Yemen who spoke to Addis Standard recounted the continued plight of Ethiopian migrants and refugees in Yemen and said there are no known survivors out of the more than 350 mainly Ethiopian migrants who were inside the hangar area where a fire broke out on March 07. Addis Standard has also received a graphic video showing piles of countless badly burned bodies inside the detention facility.

Up to now, more than 170 were confirmed to have been treated for injuries a result of the fire that engulfed a detention center located inside the Yemeni Immigration Authority compound (locally known as Al-Jawazat) in the capital Sana’a.

Citing his sources on the ground, a Yemen based journalist, Nabil Albokairi, put the number of migrants killed in the first day at “450”, and that in the next day, about 62 were killed as a result of their wounds; there are other potential deaths due to the seriousness of the degree of the burn the victims sustained, and that they did not receive any real aid or attention.” According to him, majority victims are members of the Oromo community.

“…nearly 900 migrants, predominantly Ethiopian, were in the overcrowded holding facility at the time of the fire. More than 350 were in the hangar area.

IOM Yemen

According to the IOM Yemen, however, “the total number of migrants who died in the fire at the Immigration, Passports and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Immigration Holding Facility remains unconfirmed, as official records have yet to be released. Over 170 people have been treated for injuries, with many remaining in critical condition.”

By IOM’s estimate “nearly 900 migrants, predominantly Ethiopian, were in the overcrowded holding facility at the time of the fire. More than 350 were in the hangar area.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs admitted the incident through its spokesperson Ambassador Dina Mufti but referred to it “a fire accident.” Ambassador Dina said the ministry was working closely with the IOM to help survivors of the accident. MOFA is currently monitoring the situation through the Ethiopian Embassy in Muscat and will launch an investigation into the death that occurred. The Ambassador did not provide numbers of the victims or injured.

According to Abdullah, the fire at the holding facility was not an accident. “It all began one month ago when the immigration authority started arresting Ethiopian migrants under the pretense that they didn’t have stay papers,” Abdullah who asked to only be identified by his first name for safety reasons, said, adding that “while for some it was true that they did not possess stay papers, even those who had stay papers were arrested and rounded up.” Abdullah added that the migrants were eventually transferred to the detention facility in Sana’a, but not before they have been sent to Aden to be handled by the Saudi led coalition backed Yemeni government based in Aden and those who did not pay were moved to the detention center.” When those who did not have papers protested their arrests, they were asked to pay 70,000 Yemeni Riyals (around 279 USD) for a trip home to Ethiopia, “but instead they were sent to the Houthi led government in detention facility in Sana’a.”

Ones inside the detainees started asking to be repatriated home as the conditions in the center were worsening and their requests were denied, Abdullah recounted. “The prisoners then staged a hunger strike to protest the ill treatment and to put pressure on the Houthi led government to return them home.”

The Houthi militias were sent in to intimidate the prisoners into ending the hunger strike; but the prisoners refused to respond to the militias’ presence and demands and got holed up in their wings, Abdullah said. According to journalist and writer Nabil, there were also “attempts to recruit refugees to fight on the fronts. The fire resulted from Houthi elements throwing bombs on Bodrum detention after those inside refused to respond to the Houthis and go to the fronts.”

The fire has consumed the entire hanger “before the militias agreed to open he gates to allow the prisoners to leave.”


Abdullah’s account matches that of Nabil’s when he said “the militia responded with opening fire at the gates and throwing grenades inside the hanger to force prisoners out which [initially] resulted in the death of two prisoners. The situation escalated when blankets and other inflamables inside the hangar caught fire quickly spread though the locked closed wing hosting more than 350 prisoners mainly Ethiopians.”

The fire has consumed the entire hanger “before the militias agreed to open he gates to allow the prisoners to leave.” The Houthi militia cordoned off the surrounding areas and did not allow community organizers inside the facility or IOM officials inside the compound. “We called the Ethiopian authorities, they did not take us seriously and I do not think our complaints were registered.”

The IOM confirmed that its “personnel were present at the site” when the fire broke out in a hangar next to the main building. “While the cause of the fire is still unconfirmed, its impact is clearly horrific,” said Carmela Godeau, IOM’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa.  “We are facing challenges accessing the injured due to an increased security presence in the hospitals. 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.”

Teams of IOM health workers and ambulances, and over 23,000 medical items including intravenous fluid, trauma kits and other essentials, were immediately dispatched to the facility and to major hospitals to provide urgent life-saving assistance alongside the Ministry of Public Health and Population, IOM said.    

This is not the first time that human rights abuses against Ethiopian migrants committed by Houthi rebels were registered, early in Aug 2020 Human Rights Watch published a report that detailed, “Houthi forces in April 2020 forcibly expelled thousands of Ethiopian migrants from northern Yemen using Covid-19 as a pretext, killing dozens and forcing them to the Saudi border. Saudi border guards then fired on the fleeing migrants, killing dozens more, while hundreds of survivors escaped to a mountainous border area.”

Another report by Amnesty International said that Houthi rebels were pushing Ethiopian migrants to the Saudi border, where the Saudi authorities would allow hundreds in just to detain them under “hellish conditions.”

The IOM said it has been working with the Government of Ethiopia to restart its Voluntary Humanitarian Return (VHR) program to the country, which has been on hold since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. “So far in Aden alone, over 6,000 people have been registered to return; 1,100 are expected to do so in the coming weeks. IOM has also been discussing the resumption of a humane voluntary returns process with the authorities in Sana’a.” IOM has also called for “the release of all migrants from detention in the country and a renewed commitment to providing safe, predictable movement options for migrants.”  AS  

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