AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: The Iran-backed Houthi militia is recruiting African migrants and refugees in Yemen to shore up their ranks, which have been eroded by fierce fighting with government forces and heavy airstrikes by Arab coalition warplanes.
Yemeni military officials, human rights activists and journalists say that the Houthis have intensified the recruitment and conscription of African migrants and refugees, sending them to flaring battlefields to fight their opponents after suffering heavy losses over the past two years, mainly in the central province of Marib.
The Houthis also turned to refugees and migrants after Yemeni tribes in areas under their control resisted their demands to supply soldiers to the battlefields.
“The Houthis recruited the Africans after Marib deserts swallowed their fighters,” an anonymous Yemeni military official told Arab News, adding that the militia armed the migrants and deployed them to key battlefields in Jouf, Saada, Shabwa and Marib’s Al-Kasara front.
Two months ago, Yemen’s army killed about two dozen African migrants who were fighting alongside Houthis in the northern province of Jouf, the military official said.
Many others were killed, wounded or captured in Marib, Saada and recently in the southern province of Shabwa.
Thousands of Houthis have been killed in fierce fighting with government forces in the province of Marib since early last year when the rebels renewed an offensive to control the energy-rich city of Marib, the Yemen government’s last major urban bastion in the north.
To compensate for their heavy casualties, the Houthis recruited migrants and refugees, children, public servants and also deployed fighters from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Iran.
“The Houthis have mobilized African migrants and fighters from South Africa, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq,” the military official said.
Thousands of migrants from Horn of Africa countries cross through Yemen’s coasts each year despite tightened security measures along Saudi Arabia’s border.
The UN’s International Organization for Migration said that 27,693 migrants arrived in Yemen last year, compared to 37,535 in 2020 and 138,213 in 2019.
Most of the migrants use Yemen as a transit point before heading toward Saudi Arabia.
Yemeni military officials say that some African migrants were lured into fighting alongside the Houthis through financial incentives, while many others were forcibly recruited and sent to the battlefields.
The Houthis have never denied conscripting African migrants and militia media outlets have repeatedly aired funeral processions for Africans killed in the fighting.
On Feb. 18, Houthi-owned Al-Masira broadcast a video showing a number of Houthis and Ethiopians in Sanaa attending a small funeral ceremony for Qasem Ahmed Youssef, an Ethiopian national who was killed in battle.
After the funeral, an armed Houthi figure urged reluctant Yemenis to follow the Ethiopians into war.
“We say to those Yemenis in the houses, here are the Ethiopians who give their souls in the cause of God in order to make the word of God exalted, and to support the oppressed,” the Houthi figure said.
In May last year, dozens of Houthi officials and members of the Somali community in Sanaa attended funeral prayers for Mohamed Saleh Sheikh Taher, a Somali national who was killed in fighting.
The Houthis praised the “courage” of the Somali man and thanked him for fighting the movement’s opponents.
Information Minister Muammar Al-Iryani on Sunday slammed the Houthis for exploiting the poverty of African migrants, adding that the latest funeral processions are “desperate Houthi attempts” to boost their depleted manpower.
“The Houthi funeral of Qasem Ahmed Youssef, an African immigrant, and the recruitment of his relative, confirm the Houthis recruit African immigrants and refugees to commit suicide attacks on various fronts, in a war crime and a violation of international laws and covenants,” Al-Iryani said on Twitter.