SANAA, Yemen (AP) — A fire that earlier this week tore through an overcrowded detention center for migrants in Yemen’s rebel-held capital has killed at least 44 people, according to the latest death toll released Wednesday by the head of the Eritrean community in Yemen.
New dramatic details also emerged about the blaze on Sunday, with survivors and leading figures in the migrant community saying the fire started when guards fired tear gas into a crowded hangar trying to end a protest by the migrants.
Some 900 migrants, most of them from Ethiopia, were detained at the facility — including 350 inside the hangar — of the Passports and Naturalization Authority complex in Sanaa, which is controlled by the rebels, when the fire took place, the International Organization for Migration had said.
Sanaa Mohammed Nour, head of the Eritrean migrant community in Sanaa, said that along with the 44 killed migrants, more than 180 migrants were injured.
She feared the final death toll could be much higher. At least eight people were announced dead on Sunday, but the IOM did not have access to injured migrants at hospitals and could not confirm the final death toll.
A survivor of the fire, an Ethiopian detained by the Houthi rebels late last year, said dozens were trapped and unable to escape the blaze.
“I saw bodies being burned in the hangar,” said the man who was later released from detention. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, as did other survivors.
The Iran-backed Houthi rebels, who control the capital of Sanaa and most of Yemen’s north, did not reveal the cause of the fire, mention a protest or give a final casualty toll. The Houthis also prevented the International Organization of Migration from reaching injured migrants at hospitals, the agency said.
The rebels use the facility to detain African migrants crossing Yemen in hopes of reaching wealthy Gulf Arab countries. Hundreds of them had gone on a hunger strike earlier this month the protest alleged ill-treatment and abuses, an IOM official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to talk to the media.
Around 350 of the migrants had been moved out of the main building because of overcrowding and were held in the hangar. On Sunday morning, they launched a protest against their conditions, shouting and banging on doors, three survivors and the IOM official said.
The guards were unable to control them, and an anti-riot squad was called in. Scuffles broke out and the security forces fired tear gas and shot in the air, the four said. A Yemeni rights group, Mwatana for Human Rights, cited witnesses saying the rebels also fired unidentified projectiles through the windows into the hangar. The group said these projectiles caused a fire, which quickly spread.
At some point, the migrants managed to break down the doors and some escaped but were quickly recaptured, the survivors said.
A spokesman for the Houthis did not respond to multiple calls seeking comment.
The IOM official said the death toll could have been even higher as another 200 migrants were expected to arrive at the Sanaa facility on Sunday. That group was rerouted elsewhere because of the fire, the official said.
The migrants are typically detained in the northern province of Sadaa, which borders Saudi Arabia. According to the IOM official, those detained are then taken to Sanaa, where they are held by the rebels until they each pay at least 1,000 Saudi rials to be freed.
Following Sunday's fire, the rest of the migrants were transported to southern provinces, controlled by the internationally recognized government, with the IOM believing some of the injured were also among them, the official said. Since last year, 15,000 detained migrants were forcibly taken to southern Yemen.
Amnesty International called for an independent investigation and for the U.N. to refer the situation in Yemen to the International Criminal Court. The rebels cordoned off hospitals and blocked access to injured migrants, the IOM said.
“We are facing challenges accessing the injured due to an increased security presence in the hospitals,” said Carmela Godeau, IOM’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.
Dozens of migrants have attempted over the past two days to stage a protest outside a U.N. building in Sanaa, but the rebels dispersed them, Mwatana for Human Rights said.
“This fire is a horrific addition to the long list of violations migrants and refugees have faced in Yemen during this war, and a horrific addition to the long list of violations” by the Houthis, said Radhya al-Mwtawakel, head of the group.
After the fire, the Houthis released at least 200 detained migrants, according to Nour from Eritrea and Ramadan Ahmed Youssef, a leading figure in Yemen from Oromo, Ethiopia’s largest ethnic group.
Despite its six-year-old civil war, Yemen remains a transit point for tens of thousands of African migrants desperate to find jobs as housekeepers, servants and construction workers in Saudi Arabia.
Some 138,000 migrants had embarked on the arduous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2019, but this number decreased drastically to 37,000 last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January, according to IOM.
Those migrants are vulnerable to abuse by armed traffickers, many connected to armed groups involved in the war. Earlier this month, at least 20 migrants died after smugglers threw 80 overboard during a voyage from Djibouti in East Africa to Yemen, according to the IOM.