(New York) –Yemeni government officials have tortured, raped, and executed migrants and asylum seekers from the Horn of Africa in a detention center in the southern port city of Aden, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities have denied asylum seekers an opportunity to seek refugee protection and deported migrants en masse to dangerous conditions at sea.
Former detainees told Human Rights Watch that guards beat them with steel bars and sticks, whipped them, kicked and punched them, threatened to kill or deport them, sexually assaulted them, and fatally shot at least two men. Male guards forced women to take off their abayas (full-length robes) and headscarves. They took migrants’ money, personal belongings, and documents provided by the United Nations refugee agency.
“Guards at the migrant detention center in Aden have brutally beaten men, raped women and boys, and sent hundreds out to sea in overloaded boats,” said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at Human Rights Watch. “The crisis in Yemen provides zero justification for this cruelty and brutality, and the Yemeni government should put a stop to it and hold those responsible to account.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed eight migrants, including seven ethnic Oromo from Ethiopia who had recently been held at the center, as well as Yemeni government officials and members of migrant communities.
The migrant detention center, in Aden’s Buraika neighborhood, is a converted marine science research center. Since early 2017, it has held several hundred Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, though as of April 2018, only about 90, primarily Eritrean, migrants remained.
Past videos and photos of the detention facility show hundreds of men and boys in a crowded concrete hangar, with women and girls sitting on a stone floor. Former detainees reported that the facility was overcrowded, with dire sanitation conditions and little access to medical care. The provision of food was inconsistent, and guards would occasionally withhold food.
Former detainees said guards sexually assaulted women, girls, and boys regularly. Boys would be taken at night: “Every night, they would take one, to rape them,” a former detainee said. “Not all of them. The small ones. The little ones. I know seven boys who were sexually assaulted… You could hear what was happening.” Several former detainees said the boys would come back unable to sit, sometimes crying, and occasionally telling the others what had happened. An Ethiopian woman who had been held at the facility said she still suffered pain after a guard beat her severely for refusing to have sex with him. She said women and girls were regularly raped and saw guards rape two of her friends.
Yemeni officials have not given asylum seekers an opportunity to seek protection or otherwise challenge their deportation, former detainees said. The former head of the center told VICE News Tonight on HBO that he used smugglers to return migrants to Djibouti, claiming he deported between 500 to 700 migrants a month this way: “And all the trips that we did are by the ministry’s instructions. No, [the interior minister] doesn’t ask us to contact the smuggler, but we return them in the same way they came in… They smuggled them in, they should smuggle them out.”
An Ethiopian man told Human Rights Watch the guards would take 10 people outside and have them write their names and why they left their country. He said, “If any one of them say ‘persecution,’ they tell them, ‘Be quiet, you are lying’ and then register them as migrants looking for job opportunities.” After this questioning, the man saw guards take about 150 people away from the center, including eight children he knew had been raped. The guards said they were taking them across the Red Sea to Djibouti.
The Yemeni authorities have prevented international humanitarian organizations that have visited the center from examining migrants with serious injuries, former detainees said. Guards remained near visiting aid workers, making it impossible for detainees to safely report on conditions.
Yemen’s Interior Ministry, in response to the Human Rights Watch preliminary findings, wrote in a April 2 letter that they had removed the center’s commander and begun procedures to transfer the migrants to another location, and promised to investigate complaints or evidence of abuse. Two detainees said that after the commander’s removal, some of the worst abuses had stopped.
The authorities have continued to send large groups of migrants out to sea without allowing them to seek protection or otherwise challenge their deportation, Human Rights Watch said.
In early April, the center’s new authorities put the remaining Ethiopians – about 200 people – on trucks and transported them to Bab al-Mandab, on the coast about 150 kilometers from Aden, two witnesses said. Guards sent one boat of about 100 Ethiopians out to sea. The engine of a second boat was not working, so the guards forced the remaining Ethiopians into a large, guarded yard near the shore. After a day in the yard without food, some detainees managed to escape.
The Houthi armed group, which controls the capital, Sanaa, and much of northern Yemen, has also arbitrarily detained migrants in poor conditions and failed to provide access to asylum and protection procedures in a facility near the western port of Hodeida, a former detainee and migrant community activists told Human Rights Watch. The former detainee said the conditions in Hodeida were “inhumane,” including overcrowding, lack of access to medical care, and physical abuse: “Some of the guards were very cruel and merciless. They used to beat us indiscriminately.”
Human Rights Watch examined photos showing men with sores and festering wounds. In early 2018, at least one group of migrants – 87 people, including 7 children – held in the Hodeida facility were released on condition they travel to Aden, the former detainee said. Yemeni soldiers stopped the group along the way and took them to the Buraika detention facility.
“Both the Yemeni authorities and the Houthis need to work with the United Nations refugee agency to establish a process that would allow African migrants to seek asylum or otherwise get needed protection,” Frelick said. “The horrific mistreatment of these vulnerable people only brings Yemeni leaders, whether from the government or the Houthis, into global disrepute.”
Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Yemen
Yemen has traditionally been a destination, source, and transit country for migrants. Of the estimated 10 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, up to 500,000 are Ethiopian nationals, many of whom travel irregularly to Saudi Arabia via Yemen. While many migrate for economic reasons, a significant number have fled because of serious human rights violations by their government.
Yemen is in the midst of an armed conflict, involving the Yemeni government and the Saudi-led coalition against the Houthis, and has what the UN calls the world’s worst and largest humanitarian crisis. But that did not stop more than 50,000 migrants from Somalia and Ethiopia, including more than 30,000 children, from going to Yemen between January and August 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). By February 2018, Yemen was hosting about 281,000 refugees, including many Somalis, who are recognized as refugees on a prima facie basis, and asylum seekers. The numbers are most likely much higher, given the problems migrants have registering with humanitarian agencies.
Since 2015, the Yemeni government and the Houthis have detained migrants in poor conditions, refused access to protection and asylum procedures, deported migrants en masse in dangerous conditions, and exposed them to abuse. In November 2017, Saudi Arabia opened a major campaign to deport undocumented workers and by April 1 had apprehended over 885,000 people violating labor or residency laws, including 12,477 whom Saudi border guards caught trying to cross the border from Yemen. About 38 percent were identified as Ethiopian. Saudi Arabia has not established an asylum system for migrants to prevent their forced return to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened.
Tens of thousands of Ethiopians have fled Ethiopia since late 2015 following security forces’ brutal crackdown against protesters, particularly in the Oromia region, which resulted in over 1,000 deaths and tens of thousands of arrests. Further government-initiated clashes between ethnic communities in eastern Ethiopia since 2016 left over 1 million people displaced and hundreds more dead. Many people from eastern Ethiopia move to Yemen fleeing both abuses in Ethiopia and the long arm of Ethiopian security in neighboring countries. Thousands of Eritreans leave their country every month fleeing indefinite military conscription. In Somalia, conflict-related abuses, massive internal displacement from conflict and drought, insecurity in government-controlled areas, and targeted violence against civilians by the Islamist armed group Al-Shabab have caused many people to flee.
Role of Yemen and the United Arab Emirates
The migrant detention center in Aden’s Buraika district is officially under Yemeni government control. It is housed in a building owned by the Yemeni Ministry of Fisheries that was converted into a detention facility for migrants in early 2017. Yemeni soldiers have apprehended, detained, and helped to coordinate transporting migrants to the center.
Col. Khalid al-Alwani, the former police chief of Buraika district, served as director of the Department of Refugees Affairs and Migration and commander of the center under the Interior Ministry. Former detainees alleged that he had overseen abuse, including the beating and rape of detainees and threats to aid workers. Al-Alwani denied any wrongdoing when interviewed by Human Rights Watch.
The Interior Ministry said in its April 2 letter to Human Rights Watch that it had suspended al-Alwani in mid-March and that he had “overstepped his jurisdiction.” The ministry stated it would support investigations, legal action, and suspension of any of its employees at checkpoints or at the center involved in abuse, but said it had “received no complaints.” It said it did not have the means to provide support to the center but acknowledged it had coordinated with the Defense Ministry to provide food for the center.
The Interior Ministry said that Yemeni forces arrested and transported migrants to the center but conceded it did not control the elite units known as the Security Belt, which were “rounding up and transport[ing]… migrants and displaced people to the detention center.” These units are supported and take orders from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). A UN panel of experts determined that Security Belt and other elite forces were UAE proxy forces. The UAE plays a leading role in directing coalition operations in Aden and along Yemen’s southern and western coasts. In Aden, UAE-supported forces have a particularly strong hold in certain neighborhoods, including Buraika. The UAE government did not reply to a Human Rights Watch letter raising questions about the UAE’s role regarding the center.
While al-Alwani told Human Rights Watch the UAE did not play a role in the center’s operations, multiple sources and local media reported that al-Alwani coordinated with UAE-backed Yemeni forces to arrest and transport migrants to the center and was receiving some support from the coalition. He publicly asserted that Yemeni security forces were coordinating with the coalition to deal with the migrants in a “legal and humane manner” while they were detained before deportation. At least five people, including those who know al-Alwani personally or have interacted with him in a professional capacity, said he received support from the Saudi-led coalition. They cited examples in which al-Alwani or his associates asked others to seek permission from the UAE-backed Security Belt or the coalition to provide access to the center. At least once, al-Alwani refused entry to a Yemeni government official, telling the official he only recognized the coalition’s authority, a witness said.
The Interior Ministry letter said that, due to the war, state institutions did not have the capacity to adequately respond to migrants. It said that the government had formed a ministerial committee to oversee closure of the Buraika detention center and transfer migrants to a new facility in Ras al-Ara in Lahj governate. Ras al-Ara is infamous for its strong network of smugglers, increasing the risk to migrants.
Forced Returns, Smugglers, and Death at Sea
An Ethiopian man released from the center in 2018 said there were “two ways” to leave the Buraika detention center: by paying smugglers or by being “deported into the sea.”
In March 2017, Colonel al-Alwani told the media that security forces had detained more than 200 Ethiopian and Eritrean nationals in Aden and Lahj, who were then brought to the center and deported, presumably to their home countries. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the arbitrary detention and torture of Ethiopians and Eritreans who have been forcibly returned.
Two Ethiopians recently held at the center said that the guards allowed smugglers to enter and solicit money from detainees in exchange for promises to take them to Saudi Arabia. They witnessed Yemeni men in civilian clothes and guards asking people for their relatives’ phone numbers. They would then call the family members and tell them they could have their relatives released and sent to Saudi Arabia for a fee. More than 100 people whose relatives agreed to send money were eventually released, a third man said, with promises they would be taken to Saudi Arabia. He said an interpreter worked with the guards to take names, details, and negotiate payment between the migrants and the smugglers.
The Yemeni government bears responsibility for the deaths of deported detainees at sea. In a January 26 statement, IOM and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported that 51 Somalis and 101 Ethiopians left Aden on January 23 on a boat operated by “unscrupulous smugglers who were attempting to take refugees and migrants to Djibouti, while also trying to extort more money from these refugees and migrants.”
Three people detained in the Buraika center at the time told Human Rights Watch the boat left from the center under al-Alwani’s supervision. Hours after leaving the center, the smugglers tried to force the Somali passengers onto a second boat, which capsized. The smugglers took the surviving Somalis and Ethiopians back to Yemen, but “left the others in the sea,” a survivor told a former detainee when he came back to the center. At least 30 people died. Two former detainees said that after the incident, a Somali official came to the center and yelled at al-Alwani for deporting people who perished at sea – soon afterward, the Somalis held at the center were moved elsewhere.
Accounts of Abuse
Pseudonyms been used to protect sources’ security.
Ahmed, 16, from Oromia, Ethiopia, said he went to Yemen in early 2018, walking for three days before reaching Aden. He registered with UNHCR as an asylum seeker. After about a week, a soldier in a local market apprehended him and took him to a nearby checkpoint, where he was held with 10 other Ethiopians, including women and other children. The soldiers took them to the Buraika detention center.
Guards searched them, taking their personal items, including their money. They also took Ahmed’s UNHCR document. Late at night, someone gave Ahmed some food; he hadn’t been given food or water since the soldier had found him that morning.
The guards regularly hit the prisoners, Ahmed said. One day he did not hear guards ordering the prisoners in the yard back inside. A guard began yelling, hitting him on his shoulder with a stick. “Beating was normal,” he said. “They beat anyone.”
About 10 days after he arrived, the guards told the men that one Ethiopian man had escaped. They took a large group of men and boys to the main yard and ordered them to strip naked, whipping seven and saying the men would not be given food or water until after sunset. The guards ordered the women to look at the naked men and boys and beat those who did not. Ahmed heard a gunshot. He saw the guards take an Ethiopian man’s limp body into a truck. Later, other detainees told him the man had been killed. “We don’t know how long we stayed,” he said. “When you are standing there, heat and hunger don’t matter. What matters is the gun. We are waiting for the gun.”
The nights were horrible, Ahmed said, as the guards would yell at the men and boys to go to sleep: “They would scare people with their guns... Some of my friends, who were kids, they [the guards] took them. And then when they came back they could not sit.” Some of the children told Ahmed the guards had raped them. He knew 10 children taken at night, including some held at the checkpoint with him the first day. Most were younger than he was.
One night, Ahmed saw a guard enter the ward and order a child who was asleep next to Ahmed to go with him. Ahmed heard the child screaming. He and his friend, terrified the guard would come back for them, decided to flee. They ran toward a part of the detention center they were prohibited from entering, managing to jump over a broken part of the wall. Ahmed heard shots. His friend fell: “I was just running, running, running. Then I slept. Somewhere. Then I walked…”
Another man, detained at the same time, confirmed that Ahmed had been held at the facility. Ahmed told Human Rights Watch, “When I see any military uniform, I get terrified.”
Mohammed, 29, an ethnic Oromo from Harar, Ethiopia, had taught secondary school math. He took a boat with about 170 other men and women across the Red Sea. After about 30 hours with the passengers crammed together “like stairs on top of one another,” the smugglers began shouting and hitting them with sticks, ordering them to jump into the sea. Mohammed did not feel he had a choice. He and the others swam to shore and immediately lay down on the beach, exhausted. They began walking in the morning, breaking into groups. They left one sick woman behind. “At that moment, it is very difficult to try to carry anyone or to stop for who is sick,” Mohammed said.
At a nearby checkpoint, a group of about 20 soldiers stopped Mohammed and about 50 other men and women; when some began to run the soldiers fired in the air. The soldiers gave them food and then forced them – including by hitting them – into three trucks made for transporting livestock and took them to the Buraika detention center. Over the next two months, Mohammed said, all 170 people with whom he had traveled to Yemen ended up there.
The guards beat him, repeatedly using a wooden stick to hit his foot, breaking it. He showed the disfigured foot to Human Rights Watch researchers. The guards shot two detainees while he was there, he said. When the detainees asked what happened to these men, the guards said they were sent for medical treatment, but he believed they died. Another time, the guards beat a group of men with metal rods, and the men’s wounds bled for more than two days. The guards would beat or whip those who resisted in front of the others. He said that IOM visited the center while he was there, but the guards refused to let them see the people they had mistreated, and the detainees weren’t able to tell them what was happening because the guards were always nearby and anyone who tried to tell visitors what was happening “would get beaten.”
The guards raped some of the young Ethiopian boys who were detained with him, he said. When other men refused food in protest, guards beat them. “The big men, they didn’t use them, but the boys, they used them, and the women,” he said. “They would change who every night…They sexually abused anyone without a beard, men and women, and anyone who resisted, they beat.” The guards would come at night, screaming at the detainees to go to sleep, and sometimes shooting in the air. When the boys came back, they would not be able to sit or walk well. The guards raped one Ethiopian boy about 10 years old. “Every time after that at night…. he would hold my hand.” Mohammed said the boy was terrified. “One of those times, the guards beat him with a metal stick.”
Abubakr, about 30, an Oromo from Harar, Ethiopia, arrived in Yemen in 2011. He said that in 2017, his younger brother was arrested at a checkpoint on the way to Aden, and then taken to the Buraika detention center.
Abubakr went with a Yemeni official to try and negotiate this brother’s release. He felt safe because he had a UNHCR refugee card, he said. When he arrived at the center, an official yelled at the man who had accompanied him, accusing them of trying to destroy his way of living. Abubakr said the official slapped him on the face, pain that Abubakr still feels, and took his UNHCR ID card and a large sum of money he had with him. Abubakr was detained there for a month.
Abubakr said that every night the guards would order the men and boys asleep, come into the hangar, stomp on some children’s feet, and order them to go with them. He said the boys would sometimes return crying, saying the guards had raped them. The guards also beat the prisoners, including with steel bars. After being beaten severely, one of his brother’s friends was sent away. Abubakr did not know what happened to him.
After a month in the center, the official told Abubakr he was releasing him, but that if he returned to ask about his brother he would be detained again. He made Abubakr sign a document that had the official Yemeni government seal, which he described to Human Rights Watch and identified.
“I would die if I stayed in the prison, I would die. I am still afraid,” said Fatima, 25, an Oromo woman from Harar, Ethiopia.
Yemeni soldiers arrested Fatima and her husband with a few dozen other Ethiopian men and women. When they arrived in Buraika, Fatima was separated from her husband. She saw the guards beating the men, ordering them to strip and checking their pockets. The male guards made the women take off their abayas and headscarves and checked their bodies and hair. They took them to a room with about 100 other women.
The guards would beat them regularly, she said, when the women would wail or yell. They could see the guards mistreating the men through holes in the wall of their enclosed space. The guards did not provide much food, a small plate of rice for 12 women, and the supply was not consistent.
Every night, the guards would take one or two women with them, she said. Most women were eventually forced to go with the guards. If a woman refused to sleep with the guards, they would retaliate by withholding food for two days, she said. She knew five girls – a 12-year-old, two 15-year-olds, and two 17-year-olds – who were held in the facility with her and who had been raped.
She said that two weeks after she was detained, one of the guards forced her to go with him. He took her into a nearby room, where she saw two other guards raping two of her female friends. The guard told her to take off her clothes. She refused, telling him she had a husband. The guard said she could choose: sleep with him or hang herself. There was a rope in the room. She began praying. The guard beat her, hitting her with his hands and with a large stick on her back.
Fatima became very sick, in severe pain and often crying and moaning. After the beating, she said the guards mostly left her alone, eventually releasing her when her health further deteriorated.
One of the two women Fatima saw being raped remains in the detention facility. The other was released after the guards “used her seriously and she became weak.” The guards promised to send this woman to Saudi Arabia, and Fatima heard they put her on a smuggler’s boat, but she did not know where the woman ended up.
Omar, 30, from Bale, Oromia region, Ethiopia, traveled to Yemen from Somalia in late 2017. He said that he and about a dozen others, including four women, arrived off the coast of Shabwa, an area largely controlled by the UAE-backed Shabwani Elite Forces. Soldiers at a checkpoint stopped them and gave them food. More Ethiopians arrived, until the group had about 30 people.
The soldiers made a phone call. A few hours later, men in civilian clothes came in a truck used for transporting livestock. They had an Oromo language interpreter with them. Omar heard the men and soldiers negotiating and believed the men were paying the soldiers for the migrants. The process appeared organized: He heard them asking the soldiers to sign a paper, so the men had a record they had paid.
The soldiers forced the group onto the truck, where they remained cramped for hours. Checkpoints along the road stopped the truck a few times, and Omar and others who spoke Arabic would yell that they were being smuggled, but each time the soldiers at the checkpoint let them pass. Omar said he saw the men showing the soldiers a piece of paper, which he thought was a permission form.
That night, the truck arrived at the Buraika detention center. The guards forced the men to strip, searching them and taking all of their belongings. They told everyone to turn over their money – if they found someone had hidden money, they would punish him. They took Omar’s money and phone.
The guards beat Omar and the two others who had been yelling along the way with a steel bar until they had fallen to the ground, bleeding, or fainted. Omar had a scar on his right eyebrow.
The third night he was detained, after hearing rumors the guards were raping some of the boys, Omar decided to stay awake. He positioned himself near a part of the wall that had a hole in it and peered out. He saw one of the guards raping one of the children. He said, “They do this every night, but I saw it two times, because if anyone tries to see them, they shoot them, and if anyone refuses, the next morning they take them out, and the one who refused, they beat him.”
One day a man suffering from diarrhea needed to use a toilet but there was none nearby. After he tried to explain this to the guard, who didn’t understand, he walked a bit away to defecate. The guard shot him. Omar said guards also shot another man during his detention.
Omar said he fled Ethiopia because he participated in the Oromo protests and feared government abuse. He intended to apply for asylum but was detained before he was able to. He still wants to apply for asylum, but said he was afraid to go to the UNHCR office, because was worried he would be apprehended en route. “The problems are still going on,” Omar said. “Many people in the [detention center] deserve asylum but have no way to ask for asylum.”
The Yemeni government should:
- Transfer migrant detainees to centers that meet international standards.
- Work with donor governments and international agencies to bring migrant detention centers in line with international standards under the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (“Mandela Rules”). These set out limits on the number of people per room; appropriate sleeping arrangements and bedding; adequate facilities for personal hygiene; adequate clothing and food; and access to medical services, among other things. No male staff member should enter the part of the prison set aside for women unless accompanied by a female staff member, and women prisoners should be attended and supervised only by female staff members.
- Stop detaining children and their families for immigration violations, and work with UN and other impartial humanitarian agencies to identify children in detention and facilitate their safe release. In the interim, the authorities should ensure that detained children are kept separate from unrelated adults, and have appropriate food and medical care, and can communicate with their families.
- Ensure that detention center staff act in accordance with the Standard Minimum Rules, particularly with respect to humane treatment and the use of force against detainees.
- Investigate allegations of abuse, and appropriately discipline or prosecute those found responsible. Ensure redress for victims of abuse.
The Yemeni government and Houthi authorities should:
- Ensure that detained migrants who may be facing deportation have the opportunity to make asylum claims or otherwise challenge their forced removal. Detaining asylum seekers should be a last resort.
- Work with UNHCR and other impartial humanitarian agencies to establish a presence and procedures at known migrant landing points so that new arrivals can register and make asylum claims.
- Provide UNHCR and other impartial humanitarian agencies unfettered access to all migrant detention centers and to individual migrants.