Migrants demand international probe into deadly Yemen fire

CAIRO (AP) — A leader of the migrant community in the Yemeni capital on Saturday called for an international probe into a fire that tore through a detention center last week, killing at least 44 people, mostly Ethiopian migrants.

In a news conference in Sanaa, Othman Gilto, who heads the Ethiopian community, blamed “negligence” by the Houthi rebels who control the capital, as well as the United Nations, which has aid agencies present in Yemen. The fire also injured more than 200 people, he said.

Some 900 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, were detained at the facility — including 350 inside a warehouse — when the fire took place on Sunday, according to the International Organization for Migration.

“Conditions in the holding facility, which was three times overcapacity, were inhumane and unsafe,” said António Vitorino, IOM’s director general.

At least 43 of the dead were buried in a Sanaa cemetery on Friday amid tight security. Women from the migrant community were seen screaming and crying while ambulances, carrying the bodies, arrived from a funeral service at a major mosque.

Abdallah al-Leithi, head of the Sudanese community in Sanaa, said many of the dead lacked IDs and could not be identified, adding that most “had not given their real names” on documentation before the fire.

There were no immediate comments from the Houthis.

The U.N. migration agency has called for those responsible for the tragedy to be held accountable, said Olivia Headon, the agency’s spokeswoman in Yemen.

“We stand with the victims of the fire. Migrants urgently need more protection and support in Yemen, or we will continue to see them suffer and lives lost. A step in this direction is to ensure that the victims of the fire and their families have the accountability they deserve following the horrific incident,” she said.

Survivors and local rights campaigners say the deadly blaze erupted when guards fired tear gas into the crowded warehouse, trying to end a protest against alleged abuses and ill-treatment at the facility.

The Iran-backed Houthi rebels did not state the cause of the fire, mention a protest or give a final casualty toll. They had said an investigation was opened but no conclusions have been announced. The Houthis also prevented the U.N. migration agency from accessing injured migrants at hospitals, the agency said.

The rebels also attempted to turn the blame on the IOM, accusing it of not providing shelter for migrants and transfer them to their home countries.

Vitorino, the IOM’s chief, said, however, his agency “does not establish, manage or supervise detention centers in Yemen or anywhere else in the world.”

He said the IOM has been working to restart a voluntary return of migrants in Sanaa to Ethiopia, which he described as a “lifeline for many stranded migrants in dangerous situations.”

Yemen’s six-year-old civil war has not prevented migrants from entering the country, desperate to make their way to neighboring Saudi Arabia to find jobs as housekeepers, servants and construction workers.

Some 138,000 migrants embarked on the arduous journey from the Horn of Africa to Yemen in 2019, but the figure plummeted to 37,000 last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Over 2,500 migrants reached Yemen from Djibouti in January, according to the IOM.

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