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Migrants in Sanaa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

HRW: Refugees tortured in Yemen

Ludger Schadomsky / so
May 26, 2014

A report by Human Rights Watch claims that African migrants are systematically tortured and persecuted in Yemen. The rights group says the abuses take place in the presence of Yemeni officials.


The report is 82 pages long and is filled with gruelling accounts by eye witnesses. It describes how traffickers beat one African migrant to death with wooden clubs and how two others were killed with an axe. Female migrants were raped daily, Human Right Watch said. Yemeni officials, it notes, were always present.

"We're focusing on how government officials work directly with human traffickers - not just facilitating their impunity - but enabling them to carry out torture quite openly," Belkis Wille, the report's author told DW.

Yemeni policemen
Yemeni officials are accused of complicity in rights abusesImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The report claims that security and military officials sell the migrants, a great majority of whom come from Ethiopia, to the traffickers. The migrants are then tortured and their families blackmailed. One trafficker, told Human Rights Watch the families would pay an average of $1.300 (953 euro) to secure the release of their relatives.

Eye witnesses reported that the torture methods included scorching the skin with hot plastic, tying up genitals, cutting off ears, lips and the nose, or removing fingernails. Terrified relatives were often forced to listen down the phone to these horrific procedures being carried out .

African migrants spend the night on the street in Yemen's capital Sanaa.
Many of the migrants hoping for a better life come from EthiopiaImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The lucky ones were then dumped outside the office of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Haradh, near the Saudi Arabian border. IOM staff members told Human Rights Watch they had seen evidence of people having been hung from their thumbs for hours. They had also seen deliberate cigarette burns.

Could an anti-trafficking law help?

Yemen's parliament is due to debate the introduction of an anti-trafficking law in the coming weeks. "If it passes, it will be accompanied by an action plan to combat human trafficking in Yemen," Wille said. "It would also strengthen the criminalization of those complicit with human traffickers."

Wille believes that the passing of the law would be a step in the right direction, but cautions that it would only have an effect if it was properly implemented. She recalls how the Yemeni government announced an earlier crackdown on human trafficking in 2013. Later it emerged several officials and policemen were being bribed by the traffickers.

Belkis Will Human Rights Watch
Belkis Wille says the success of any anti-trafficking law would depend on how well it is implementedImage: Human Rights Watch/Yotutube

Many migrants from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia pass through Yemen on their way to Saudi Arabia. They go there in search of work as maids, gardeners or rubbish collectors. Human rights groups have alerted authorities to the miserable conditions under which many of these migrants live in Saudi Arabia, where they are often forced into slave labor and physically and sexually exploited.

In 2013, Saudi Arabia deported hundred thousands of illegal migrants back to their countries of origin. Yet the trafficking route to the oil-rich nation remains highly popular.

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