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16 March 2021 – Yemen

M. MacGregor, “Yemen Detention Center Fire Highlights Dangers for Migrants,” InfoMigrants, 8 March 2021,
M. MacGregor, “Yemen Detention Center Fire Highlights Dangers for Migrants,” InfoMigrants, 8 March 2021,

Amidst an ongoing conflict that has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and widespread famine, migrants and refugees in Yemen–most of whom are from Ethiopia or Somalia–continue to face detention and physical threats in the country, in part because of rumors that they are spreading COVID-19 (see the 4 August 202 update on this platform for more background). According to the IOM (27 July 2020), “the spread of COVID-19 has increased discriminatory attitudes and behaviours and further compromised migrants’ access to essential services such as food, water, shelter and health assistance. Additionally, migrants stranded in Yemen are facing increased detention and are being subjected to forced transfers across frontlines. IOM is concerned that COVID-19 restrictions are being instrumentalied to implement migrant encampment, detention and forced relocation agendas.” In December 2020, the IOM estimated that at least 6,000 migrants were detained in centres across Yemen.

Unable to cross Yemen’s northern border into Saudi Arabia, many migrants are returned to southern territories and subsequently held in detention facilities. These centres have then been targeted by armed forces. On 7 March 2021, for example, “scores of migrants burned to death … after Houthi security forces launched unidentified projectiles into an immigration detention center in Sanaa,” reported Human Rights Watch (16 March 2021). The facility, which was the Immigration, Passport and Naturalization Authority (IPNA) Holding Facility at Sana’a airport, was detaining around 900 detainees, 350 of whom were in the hangar-like building that caught fire. The 44 killed and hundreds of surviving migrants were of African, mostly of Ethiopian, origin. Before the fire, detainees had been staging a hunger strike over their living conditions at the facility — cramped cells, a lack of mattresses, limited food and drinking water, unsanitary conditions, and abuse from guards. According to surviving detainees, the guards responded by identifying and isolating the organisers outside, beating them, locking them in the hanger, and calling Houthi security forces, who threatened that they would hear their “final prayers.” Afterwards, they said that two projectiles were launched into the hangar room by the security forces, which produced gas, exploded and started a fire.

Detention conditions and violent abuses of migrants have been criticised for years by human rights bodies, including the UN Human Rights Council’s Group of Independent Eminent International and Regional Experts. In 2018, they reported sexual abuse, physical violence, and killings of women and boys at the hands of guards in the Bureiqa migrant detention centre in Aden, where hundreds of Eritrean, Ethiopian, and Somali migrants, asylum seekers and refugees were held. In 2019, Security Belt forces arbitrarily detained around 5,000 migrant men, women, and children, placed them in ad-hoc facilities with “appalling conditions” in Lahij and Aden, and subsequently subjected them to sexual violence. According to the Group of Experts, “these sexual violence acts were situated in a broader context of structural discrimination against the survivors, all of whom were Ethiopian migrants. The caste-like system in Yemen reinforces the ‘subordinate’ status of black African communities.”

Although the sea route from the Horn of Africa to Yemen remains a busy and dangerous maritime migration route, the COVID-19 pandemic has led to dramatic decreases in migrant traffic. According to the IOM (23 February 2021), there has been a “nearly three-fourths decline in migration from the East and Horn of Africa regions towards Gulf Council Countries during 2020. … Data released by IOM show that the number of migrants crossing via Yemen from the Horn dropped from a high of 138,213 in 2019 to 37,537 in 2020. Forced returns from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia were also significantly reduced, passing from nearly 121,000 Ethiopian migrants in 2019 to 37,000 in 2020.”

Despite this downward trend, the route continues to be used, often with tragic consequences. On 4 March 2021, smugglers on a boat carrying 200 migrants from Djibouti to Yemen threw 80 people into the sea, killing at least 20. This was the third incident in the last half year, leading to more than 70 migrants deaths. After arriving in Yemen by boat, migrants are often kidnapped and taken to informal captivity camps in Lahj, of which there are reportedly around 80 in Ras al-Ara, where they are further subjected to abuse and violence in the absence of state protection.

Wracked by war, Yemen was unprepared to respond effectively to the COVID-19
pandemic. Only around half its health facilities were functional but under equipped, and the government and de facto authorities adopted inadequate measures. As of 16 March 2021, the country had recorded 2,912 cases and 699 deaths. The pandemic has also increased food insecurity in the malnourished population and restricted humanitarian access and response. The UN Group of Experts received reports that COVID-19 measures were used as a cover to commit further violations on vulnerable communities such as detainees and migrants.