“They would tie my hands behind my back and lay me down on the ground,” was what “Said” told me, describing the torture camp near Yemen’s coast where he spent seven days before the traffickers holding him sold him to another gang. “Then they would beat me with sticks,” he said as he showed me the scars across his back. “I saw the guards kick the face of one man who was on the floor, breaking his teeth.”
A month ago, Human Rights Watch issued a report that I researched showing how traffickers abuse African migrants in isolated camps in the desert, with the complicity of Yemeni officials. We documented how networks of human traffickers coordinate with the boat crews that deposit the migrants on the Yemeni coast, hold the migrants in detention camps, and torture them to extort payment from their families for their release. We found that traffickers pay officials either to look the other way or to help them.
After extensive public discussion, the Yemeni government on June 6 began a series of raids on the traffickers’ “torture camps” in the desert. By June 13, the authorities had released 92 migrants and arrested 16 traffickers, according to a public statement issued by the International Organization for Migration. These raids are a good first step, but they are only a band-aid, not a long-term solution, for the deep wound of official corruption.
We found that government officials at multiple levels help traffickers to run the camps, and help them to escape prosecution, conviction, and prison. As long as that climate of complicity persists, government raids will certainly help individual migrants, but they won’t stop the system of horrific abuses.
This is why our main recommendation wasn’t to prosecute the traffickers themselves—that is the second call—but for the Yemeni government to vigorously investigate and prosecute all government officials complicit in the abuses. I recognize that the government has a limited capacity, and it is unrealistic to expect authorities to do the whole job immediately. Yet an initial handful of well-chosen prosecutions will give the Yemeni people a sense that their government is prepared to act and will send a message to other officials that the authorities no longer turn a blind eye to this kind of criminal activity.
Yemen has an official who should be able to take this job on: the Interior Ministry’s inspector general. A presidential decree created the position a year ago to oversee the ministry’s staff, including its security forces, in light of alleged human rights abuses. Abdu Thabet Al-Sobaihi, the inspector general, has not yet announced a public investigation into the activities of any official, but the abuses against migrants would be a perfect place to start.
The Human Rights Watch report contains copious information about the mistreatment of migrants, and the complicity of officials. Given that this investigatory work was done with very limited manpower, I am confident that if the Inspector General’s Office has the will to tackle this problem, investigators could put together cases to bring implicated officials to trial.
Findings of the Report
The 82-page report, “Yemen’s Torture Camps,” shines a light on official complicity that supports traffickers’ camps constructed in recent years along the border areas with Saudi Arabia, and most likely elsewhere in the country. The traffickers pick up the migrants as they arrive by boat on the coast or “buy” them from security and military officers at checkpoints, charging the migrants fees on the promise of getting them to Saudi Arabia or other affluent Gulf countries to seek work. But instead, the traffickers take the migrants to their camps, where the traffickers inflict severe pain and suffering on the migrants to extort money from their relatives back home or friends already working abroad.
Except for some raids in 2013, the authorities have done little to stop the trafficking. Officials have more frequently warned traffickers of raids, failed to prosecute them, and then released those they arrest. In some cases, they have actively helped the traffickers capture and detain migrants.
My colleagues and I interviewed 18 male migrants from Ethiopia and 10 traffickers and smugglers, as well as government officials, activists, diplomats, aid workers, health professionals, and journalists between June 2012 and March 2014.
The migrants described horrific ill-treatment in the camps. Beatings were commonplace. One man described watching another man’s eyes gouged out with a water bottle. Another said that traffickers hung him by wire wrapped around his thumbs, and tied a string with a full water bottle around his penis. Witnesses said the traffickers raped some of the women migrants they held.
Aid workers told me they observed signs of abuse in migrants consistent with their accounts of traffickers ripping off fingernails, burning the cartilage of their ears, branding their skin with irons, gouging out eyes, and breaking their bones. Health professionals at a medical facility at the border town of Haradh said they commonly saw migrants with injuries including lacerations from rape, damage from being hung by their thumbs, and burns from cigarettes and molten plastic.
The torture sometimes ends in death. A migrant told me that he saw traffickers tie a man’s penis with string and beat him with wooden sticks until the man died before his eyes. Another said that traffickers killed two men in his group by hacking them with an axe. Migrants tortured to near death are sometimes dumped outside a migrant center in Haradh that is run by the International Organization for Migration.
Extorting money from the families of captive migrants brings in large sums of money in Yemen, the Middle East’s poorest country. Migrants told me that their family members and friends paid ransoms for their freedom ranging from the equivalent of YR43,000 to more than YR215,000. A trafficker who negotiates ransoms said that he is often able to extract YR279,500 per migrant from their families.
Traffickers transporting Yemeni and African migrants pay standardized bribes to officials to allow them through checkpoints in border areas, they and officials told me. But the complicity of officials goes beyond petty bribery. Smugglers and migrants alike said that some checkpoint guards had intercepted migrants on the roads and turned them over to traffickers in exchange for payment.
One migrant told me that after he and a friend had escaped a torture camp last August, Yemeni soldiers apprehended them at a checkpoint near Haradh. While the two were fed bread and tea, the soldiers made some calls. In a short while, two men arrived in a car, paid the soldiers cash in exchange for the two migrants, and drove them to a torture camp.
Involvement in trafficking appears to extend to elements within various state security forces in Haradh, including the police, military, and the intelligence services. Traffickers, smugglers, and Yemeni officials provided me with the names of senior officials who they said were complicit in trafficking. Two officials also told me that traffickers had bribed them so they would not be raided or arrested.
On May 20, Human Rights Watch received a letter from the Defense Ministry responding to questions sent to the ministry in April. The ministry reiterated the military’s resolve to crack down on torture camps that it had identified but denied any government complicity, including by checkpoint officers, in human trafficking. The ministry also stated that no officials had been investigated on charges of complicity with traffickers.
The 2013 raids on traffickers’ camps were carried out from March to May by Yemeni security forces. The Defense Ministry said that the security forces discontinued the raids because they were unable to provide the migrants with food or shelter upon their release. Officials acknowledged that many of the camps that security forces had raided are functioning again.
A judge who tries lesser felonies in Haradh said that he had seen only one case related to migrant abuse, and that the prosecutor had botched it. Nor did I find any indication that more serious charges have been brought in the nearby higher criminal court. Interior Ministry and other officials could not cite a single case of disciplinary or legal action against officials for collaborating with traffickers. The Yemeni government’s failure to investigate and prosecute serious abuses committed against migrants by private parties and the involvement of government officials violates Yemen’s obligations under international human rights law to protect people from violations of their rights to life and to bodily integrity.
My colleagues and I were told by migrants, traffickers and Yemeni officials that Saudi border officials have also been complicit in the abuse of migrants by apprehending border crossers and turning them over to Haradh-based traffickers.
Creating the role of inspector general, in and of itself, suggests a new level of government commitment to curb officials’ illegal activities. But unless the Inspector General’s Office carries out actual investigations, the post remains merely symbolic. Government corruption relating to abuses against migrants in Haradh appears to be so rampant that anyone and everyone discusses it openly. The Inspector General’s office should welcome the opportunity to start investigating.