Exposed: How Houthi’s brutal treatment of African migrants in Yemen sparked deadly fire at immigration center

Exposed: How Houthi’s brutal treatment of African migrants in Yemen sparked deadly fire at immigration center
A fire that killed dozens in the Yemeni capital has shone a light on conditions for refugees detained in Houthi-held Sanaa. (UN/File)
Short Url
Updated 12 March 2021

Exposed: How Houthi’s brutal treatment of African migrants in Yemen sparked deadly fire at immigration center

Exposed: How Houthi’s brutal treatment of African migrants in Yemen sparked deadly fire at immigration center
  • Rights group accuses Iran-backed militia of starting blaze that killed dozens in Sanaa
  • Yemenis outraged over migrants’ deaths, call for international investigation

DUBAI: Details have emerged of how a bungled attempt by Yemen’s Houthis to suppress protests at an overcrowded detention center led to dozens of African migrants perishing in a deadly blaze.

Anger has grown in Yemen and around the world after the blaze on Sunday in the Houthi-held capital Sanaa shone a spotlight on the Iran-backed militia’s “inhumane” treatment of refugees.

Graphic videos and images of burnt bodies have circulated on Twitter, with calls condemning the Houthi’s silence on the blaze.

The group has failed to provide an official death toll or revealed the number of injuries.



A senior figure in Sanaa’s Eritrean migrant community told AP at least 44 migrants were killed and that the death toll could be much higher.

Local reports suggested hundreds may have perished in the blaze at the facility housing 900 people. The fire took place in a hangar within the complex containing 350 refugees. 

The UN’s International Organization of Migration (IOM) said at least 170 were injured and an unknown number had died.

Many local reports – including that of Yemeni human rights group Mwatana – claimed the blaze was started by the Houthi militia.

Attempts to contact a Houthi spokesman were unsuccessful.

The fire took place days after migrants at the facility on Khawlan Street started a protest against mistreatment and poor conditions, according to Mwatana.



A migrant detained in the center said the Houthis were also extorting them by demanding a fee in exchange for their release.

Witnesses said Houthi guards attempted to end the protest on Sunday afternoon, and when migrants refused, they fired “projectiles” into the hangar, which sparked the blaze.

“We tried to escape but the ward doors were locked, and we were cramped inside,” a detainee told Mwatana. “I could hear the sound of explosions and the sounds of my friends groaning…but I could not help anyone.”

Mwatana said: “The horrific incident once again underscores how desperately international investigations and credible accountability are needed for Yemen.

“States should immediately take concrete steps to ensure criminal accountability and reparations for Yemen, including violations and abuses committed against migrants and refugees.”



Yemenis have expressed their anger on social media with many accounts using the hashtag “HouthisBurnBlackRefugees” along with “BlackLivesMatter” and posts calling for justice for those killed.

In a statement to Arab News, the IOM condemned the inhumane conditions at the detention centers in Sanaa.

“For years, IOM has strongly and publicly advocated against the use of migrant detention centers in Yemen and continues to call for all migrants to be released from detention, particularly those held in inhumane conditions,” the agency said.

“If the local authorities chose to detain migrants, the conditions must respect human dignity,” the statement added. “This was and is not the case in the immigration holding facility in Sanaa, as horrifically shown by the deadly impact of the fire.”



The Yemeni government, which was driven from Sanaa by the Houthis in 2014, have demanded an international inquiry into the blaze.

Yemen’s Information Minister Muammar Al-Aryani accused the militia of recruiting detained migrants to fight in the civil war.

“We strongly condemn the horrific crime committed in migrant detentions run by the terrorist Houthi militia in the seized capital, Sanaa, which led to the death and injury of hundreds of them,” he said.

The minister said the Houthis had attempted to cover up the massacre by burying victims in a mass grave. 

Yemen has long been the destination for millions of refugees from the horn of Africa attempting to seek refuge. 

Many have settled in Yemen for decades, and integrated into Yemeni society.

In 2020, movement restrictions and border closures related to the COVID-19 pandemic led to an extremely low rate of migrant arrivals in Yemen, according to the IOM. A total of 37,535 people arrived in Yemen last year, compared to an estimated 138,000 in 2019 with similar numbers arriving the year before.

UNHCR Representative for Yemen, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, told Arab News that although the IOM has been taking the lead in the response to the detention center fire, many other NGOs have joined forces to help those affected.

Aside from giving medical assistance, Beuze said that the UNHCR is providing mental health assistance to the African community in Sanaa.

“It has a huge psychological impact on the African community in Sanaa and Yemen on the whole,” he said with reference to the fire disaster.  

Desert Storm: 30 years on
The end of the Gulf War on Feb. 28, 1991 saw the eviction of Iraq from Kuwait but paved the way for decades of conflict