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The fate of migrant workers in Yemeni 'torture camps'

A new report from Human Rights Watch revisits the torture camps of Yemen, where the only way out for the tens of thousands of migrant workers interned each year is a ransom payment from back home – and until it arrives, torture, beatings and inhumane conditions.

Nearly all of the fifty to a hundred thousand illegal migrants that arrive each year into Yemen, en route to Saudi Arabia, pass through these camps.

Every year, many Ethiopians, escaping one of the poorest countries in the world, pay brokers to transport them across the Gulf of Aden, through Yemen, into Saudi Arabia. The attraction is construction or domestic work, paying just enough to support a family back home. Last week, a boat carrying sixty migrants destined for Yemeni shores sank with no survivors.

Once on dry land, they are placed in trucks or cars and driven towards Saudi Arabia. At the border town, nearly all find themselves unexpectedly interned – in the back yard of a warehouse building, if they're lucky with a tarpaulin stretched over the top but often exposed to scorching temperatures. Others find themselves in purpose made camps, packed in with dozens of others. The brokers had lied to them – promising they will be smuggled all the way to Saudi Arabia but instead selling them into "torture camps."

First, any money is taken from the captured migrants. Most will be beaten up with fists, kicks and sticks, often by Ethiopian guards working for Yemeni gang-masters – before being told they should phone home. If the family of the migrant don't wire a ransom to the kidnappers, the migrant will be tortured. If they refuse to phone, they will be tortured. If the family can't afford the ransom (around $600, in a country where net monthly salaries are around $400), the captive will be tortured until they find a way to pay.

One man described watching a man's eyes being 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. With a technique apparently borrowed from the Ethiopian security services, male migrants have string tied around their penis – and are then forced to drink bottle after bottle of water. The pain is unimaginable. Others reported being burnt with melted hot plastic. Witnesses said the traffickers raped the female migrants.

This horrific system is run with near impunity. Much of the material in the report comes directly from the traffickers themselves, who are bold enough to openly divulge their operational techniques. Hostages are frequently seen being loaded into trucks parked in busy streets, often in daylight. The locations of the torture camps are barely secrets. Most of the camps (there are around thirty in Haradh, and probably more elsewhere in Yemen) are operated by local families, often on land that they own (with paperwork to prove it).

Occasionally, a migrant will die – not deliberately, just over-enthusiastic sadism inflicted by their captors. Dead bodies are dumped out on the street outside the camps, undisguised.

Escapes happen every so often. On occasion the camp guards turn a blind eye – there is such a steady flow of migrants that rounding them up is too much effort: there will be a new batch in the morning. At any one time, up to twenty five thousand migrants can be in the border town of Haradh at any one time. Nearly all end up in torture camps.

Sometimes the smugglers return after the ransoms have been paid, and do help migrants to cross the border into Saudi. But more likely, they return to the beaches, to pick up yet more Ethiopians to sell to the torture camps.

The phenomenon is not new – the inter-linked system of smugglers, traffickers and camps has been in place since around 2003. Human rights groups have done a good job calling attention to it, the BBC and others have provided excellent coverage. But this new report from Human Rights Watch reveals for the first time why the traffickers can operate so blatantly – the complicity of police, army, coastguard and government officials.

There were government raids in 2013, ordered from Sana'a, in which the Border Guard say around fifty camps were raided and several thousand migrants were released. The numbers may be an exaggeration – local reports suggest that only a couple of thousand were freed, and certainly a maximum of twenty traffickers were ever charged. There is yet to be a single successful prosecution.

Though involvement of government employees with human traffickers is widespread – the Interior Minstry couldn't point to a single case of disciplinary or legal action taken against corrupt officials.

At the lowest level – manning one of the three checkpoints at the border town of Haradh is simply lucrative.

The average monthly salary in Yemen hovers just above $200. Smugglers who don't forewarn of their arrival, and want to pass through without arrest, can expect to pay $130 per car, while those who notify the checkpoint in advance pay just $30. Smugglers pack the cars full to maximise their returns.

Depending on what route the smugglers take after Haradh, there are then either six or nine further checkpoints to go through, before entering into Saudi territory. Each of these typically comes with a further bribe of about $50.

Turning a blind eye for financial gain is common, indeed the system couldn't exist without it – but many officials also enter into the trade themselves, selling foreign migrants they detain back to the torture camps.

Owners of the camps are believed to pass on protection money to the more senior commanders in the area – police, border guards or military. Many will receive a phone call the night before any raid – quickly dismantling the camp and freeing their hostages.

Saudi officials are also involved. On that side of the border, the evidence suggests complicity goes no higher than customs officials wanting to make a quick buck, though there are some reports of Saudis selling detained migrants back to the torture camps, or traffickers.

Security and immigration concerns have seen Riyadh order the construction of a solid fence stretching the entire border. An American firm is reportedly involved with the design – which includes watchtowers, state of the art sensors and CCTV cameras. In many ways, Yemen is to Saudi Arabia as Mexico is to the United States, a troubling, unstable neighbour. Human and drug trafficking are huge problems in Yemen, while the Houthi insurgency in the north also presents a threat.

Ironically, those Saudi officials who are honest enough to not take bribes are far more dangerous. It's not clear whether the shoot-to-kill policy is official – but walking the border you can often see the bodies of smugglers or failed migrants, riddled with bullet holes.

There are several unanswered questions. The first is how news of the camps hasn't filtered back to Ethiopians and Somalis in their home countries., or if it has – hasn't deterred people from running the gauntlet.

Awareness campaigns are being run by the Ethiopian government and the Danish Refugee Council, but often the circumstances in which people decide to migrate are sudden, unplanned or simply necessary for survival. There may not be others nearby who have experience of being smuggled. The deportation of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants from Saudi Arabia back to Ethiopia may increase awareness.

The fate of women migrants is also unclear. There are certainly more men than women on the boats arriving into Yemen, perhaps three for every one man. But the torture camps (which most migrants get caught in), contain a far smaller proportion of females than the boats did.

It is not quite clear where these women end up. Females may have a higher value to the traffickers, as they can be sold as sex slaves. It is suspected that many end up being trafficked into Saudi Arabian brothels, and are never seen again.

The final unanswered question is how far up the chain of government the corruption and complicity runs. The coastguard's efforts to chase down smugglers boats were hampered last year when, allegedly, a new official from Sana'a was appointed. He was suspiciously unenthusiastic about running expeditions to capture smugglers.

There are rumours, perhaps urban myths, that the former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, made his fortune in the trade. He spent his early career working at a military checkpoint where trafficking was commonplace.

Some say those in the current transitional government, in Sana'a, may also be complicit. When raids do occur, it is usually the military central command rather than the Ministry of Interior who conduct them. There are genuine concerns amongst some officials in Sana'a, who want to get the torture camps closed. But not telling the Ministry of Interior the raids are going ahead suggests that civil servants in that department may be tipping off the local police in Haradh.

Human Rights Watch have made a range of recommendations – mainly focused on improving accountability for those caught, reducing corruption and trying to increase the number of raids.

Sana'a announced recently that no more raids could be carried out, because there were not large enough facilities to feed, water and house the thousands freed that would be freed from the camps.

Human Rights Watch are lobbying international donors to pay for lorries, tents and marquees which can be stowed away, then rolled out the moment a raid happens. The construction of this temporary mass residence would be so fast, torture camps might not realise a raid is on the way.

If after that, Sana'a still refuse to deal with the problem – it may become clear how high the complicity really goes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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AfricaArticleEthiopiaMiddle EastOpinionSaudi ArabiaYemen
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