Risks rise for African migrants on Yemen-Saudi border

Discovery of 70 battered men and women held captive in a remote area of Yemen has sparked an investigation into the torture and extortion of African immigrants by criminal gangs.

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SANAA // The discovery of 70 battered men and women held captive in a remote area of Yemen has sparked an investigation into the torture and extortion of African immigrants by criminal gangs.

The men and women had been held for some time in a house in Haradh city, in the province of Hajja, and were found in February wearing just their underwear.

The authorities were alerted by two of the victims who managed to escape by jumping over the wall of the house, government officials said.

More than 10 Africans immigrants to Yemen die every month as they try to enter Saudi Arabia through the southern borders with Yemen, United Nations officials said.

Most end up in the hands of criminals who torture them until their families pay thousands of dollars in ransom for their release, said Berhane Taklu-Nagga, the local head of the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Haradh district. Others are held captive until enough new immigrants arrive, as there is not enough space to keep all of them.

"It is like a mafia and a business for some Yemenis and Africans who are now trafficking immigrants to Saudi Arabia and we have been making appeals without any response," said Mr Taklu-Nagga.

He said the smugglers have networks in Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

Most of the 15,000 immigrants who are scattered throughout Haradh are from Ethiopia and Somalia.

"The immigrants take the risk of sailing to Yemen and move to the borders with Saudi Arabia in the hope to be smuggled there, but they end up at the hands of brutal smugglers," said Ibrahim Zaidan, the Haradh representative for Yemen's human rights ministry.

The refugees, mainly Somalis, are either scattered in cities across the country or in refugee camps in the south. Mr Zaidan said the African smugglers go to the camps and lure women with promises of work in Saudi Arabia.

"We are informed of such cases on a daily basis. The situation is catastrophic and tragic," said Mr Zaidan. "It started with few cases, but now it is a phenomenon. The villages of Haradh are full of African immigrants," Mr Zaidan said.

There are now more than 170 other Africans held captive by armed smugglers, said Mr Taklu-Nagga, and another 20 Ethiopian women whose whereabouts are unknown.

Those who were set free were brutally beaten up and women were raped, he said.

"Every single woman who falls under the grip of the smugglers is raped. We have been told that they rape even children in front of their mothers and fathers. It is really shocking to see such brutality."

Mr Taklu-Nagga said the victims are burnt with cigarettes, starved, and thrown from moving cars. Some die of disease or thirst.

"Some of them die and are buried without the notice of anybody. The figures we give are less than the reality. It is a human disaster going on here," Mr Taklu-Nagga said.

Jamilah, a 20 -year-old Ethiopian woman, was raped by her smugglers after being deported from Saudi Arabia. Jamilah, who refused to give her family name, was taken to a refugee camp in Haradh on Monday

The Yemen interior ministry said in a recent report that 170 Africans were held captive, tortured and mistreated by criminals in Haradh between January of last year and February of this year.

Last year, a total of 507 individuals were identified as victims of physical and sexual abuse, mainly women and unaccompanied minors.

Police in Haradh arrested two suspects in February who were holding 128 illegal Ethiopian migrants, the ministry said.


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