Ethiopian migrants who escaped Sanaa fire tell of Houthi coercion

Yemeni rebels threatened to press migrants into fighting the government if they did not pay for their release

Members representing African communities in Yemen gather to speak in front of the offices of the International Organisation for Migration in the capital Sanaa, following last weekend's fire in a holding facility,  on March 13, 2021. Dozens of migrants are feared to have died and scores of opthers injured in the fire, the UN's migration agency said yesterday, citing local migrant group reports. / AFP / Mohammed HUWAIS
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Ethiopian migrants who survived a fire at a Houthi-run detention centre in Sanaa have spoken to The National about events which led to the tragedy.

A number of survivors fled to Aden after the March 8 inferno that may have killed at least 45 people and injured more than 170.

Survivors claim that Iran-backed Houthi militias rounded up hundreds of migrants, predominantly from Ethiopia's Oromo ethnic group.

They were forced to either pay the Houthis or join them in their fight against the government.

"They forcibly detained me while I was working in a restaurant in Sanaa city last week," said Radhwan Oromo, a young Ethiopian migrant.

He was among the migrants protesting in front of the UNHCR office in Aden on Thursday to demand international support.

"The Houthis told me that they would take me to the holding centre where they would take my fingerprints and let me go, but when I arrived, I found hundreds of fellow Oromo Ethiopians detained in the hangar," he said.

"The hangar was crowded, so they put small groups in the yard, and later they told us that we must pay 70,000 Yemeni rials [$280] or go to the front to fight with them."

For the vast majority of Ethiopians, this would be a prohibitive sum of money.

"The majority of the detainees refused the Houthi proposal and started demanding to be released and repatriated. This ignited a dispute with the Houthis, who threw grenades into the hanger, starting a blaze among our fellows inside," Mr Oromo said.

"Most of the Oromo fellows inside the hanger were harmed except those who hid in the toilets."

Abdullah Kamel, another Ethiopian migrant who survived the fire and fled to Aden, also told The National how the Houthis proposed to recruit them to fight on the front lines.

"When the Houthis refused to free us, we started a food strike," he said. "They brought us breakfast and we refused to eat and asked them to release us. The top officer came to us and told us we would not be released unless we let our relatives transfer 70,000 rials for each man. Otherwise, we would have to join the frontlines to fight."

Other Ethiopian migrants who fled to Aden after the fire expressed anger over the inhuman treatment they received in Houthi-controlled areas.

"Why did the Houthis kill my Oromo fellows in such cold blood?" said Ali Ahmed, an Ethiopian migrant in his forties.

"Why should we die? We came from our country to Yemen as refugees and we have official IDs, so why did they kill us? What is the reason?"

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has called for urgent humanitarian access to the survivors of the fire, including those injured.

The death toll has reached 45, while 170 other migrants suffered burns. Most of them are receiving treatment at three public hospitals in Sanaa city, according to Olivia Headon, media officer at IOM-Yemen, who spoke to The National last week.

Yemen’s government has called for an urgent inquiry into the blaze.

"We call for a transparent and independent international investigation to reveal details of the crime and hold the perpetrators to account, pressure Houthis to stop recruiting and exploiting refugees in combat, release all detainees in respect of Yemen's obligations and ensure freedom of movement or voluntary return," said Information Minister Muammar Al Aryani.

Sea routes linking Yemen to the Horn of Africa are seen as a viable, albeit dangerous, option by thousands of migrants who cross on a daily basis in an attempt to reach Gulf states, seeking jobs and a better life.

Nearly 138,000 migrants from the Horn of Africa attempted to pass through Yemen on their way to Gulf states in 2019.

This number dropped to 37,500 in 2020 because of Covid-19 restrictions, according to the IOM.

Migrants in Yemen are vulnerable to human-trafficking operations, many of them linked to armed militias.