Yemen’s torture camps and government complicity

A latest report on the plight of migrants by Human Rights Watch has a title as forthright as its content: Yemen’s Torture Camps: Abuse of Migrants by Human Traffickers in a Climate of Impunity. Gathering findings from their investigations with medical workers, aid agency staff, state judiciary, police, soldiers and numerous migrant witness testimony, Human Rights Watch presents a shocking picture of violence against migrants in Yemen. In bold detail, the report also elaborates that the climate of impunity is not only a case of state officials ‘turning a blind eye’, but in various reported cases, and to a systemic level, state officials are complicit with criminal acts.

For at least two years, the media, commentators and relevant organizations have been deeply concerned at severity of human rights abuses perpetrated against migrants, mainly from Somalia and Ethiopia, while travelling into and through Yemen. Having tolerated and even assisted migrants and refugees for many years it appears that a new phenomenon – a new criminal enterprise, has recently developed.

Far from the famed traditional hospitality offered to foreigners and travellers, migrants today are treated both as commodities in so far that they can be exploited for profit, while at the same time they appear to be entirely expendable – in so far that the flows of migrants that continue to come to Yemen are high. In the last three years alone over a quarter of a million migrants and refugees have come on overcrowded fishing boats to Yemen’s shores.

In 2013, as the reports of abuses accumulated and the occasional media report reached the international community, the Yemen government – itself in a state of turmoil in 2011/12 and facing insurgency and rebellion – appeared to make efforts to free thousands of African migrants from ‘torture camps’. However, following police raids that freed over 3000 (the government claims 7000) migrants, according to this report, none of perpetrators have been jailed. Additionally dozens, if not hundreds of ‘torture camps’ remain active holding migrants to ransom, using torture, sexual violations and murder to force money from the relatives and friends of the poorest and most desperate of international travellers – these economic migrants and asylum seekers.

State officials are reportedly complicit in a number of ways, facilitating and tolerating human smuggling and trafficking for payment from criminals and themselves on occasion detaining and selling migrants to traffickers. In short, the report not only catalogues the serious abuses that continue in Yemen but shows how the Yemeni government is objurgating its national and international legal commitments and risks itself becoming directly guilty of trafficking through complicity and its failure to stop the crimes and apprehend and punish perpetrators – perpetrators who currently operate in a very low risk, high profit environment.

Only last year, the Yemeni government hosted a regional high level conference on asylum and migration and publicly decried the abuses against migrants, and, with other states committed themselves to what is known as the Sana’a Declaration. The UNHCR in Yemen welcomed the findings and recommendations of the recent Human Rights Watch Report on Yemen’s ‘torture camps’ released on the 25th May 2014, and encouraged the government to redouble its efforts to end trafficking. In a statement on May 28th they wrote: “The Sana’a Declaration, signed last November by the Government of Yemen and ten countries from the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa, offers a relevant regional framework in this perspective. Indeed, the Declaration includes inter alia recommendations to strengthen governments’ efforts against human trafficking and enhance rescue capacities as well as protection and assistance to victims.”

Clearly there is a lot the Yemen government can do to prevent their own citizens and officials victimizing and exploiting migrants. There are existing national laws that already prohibit, abduction, torture, kidnapping, rape and murder – to name some of the crimes perpetrated against migrants. Laws against the specific crime of trafficking may still need to be ratified, accepted and applied but existing laws, if applied could address the problem.

Given the level of much-publicised violence and brutality facing migrants, apart from evoking the legal aspects of the imperative to protect, it could be expected that the shame of having such crimes continuing in broad day-light would be sufficient to cause the government to act.

Note: This article originally appeared on the RMMS Horn of Africa website.