African migrants who were detained in war-torn Yemen have described horrific abuses, including the rape of women and boys, at the hands of local security forces backed by the United Arab Emirates, an international rights group said Tuesday.
Migrants from the Horn of Africa continue to travel to Yemen en route to jobs in the oil-rich Gulf despite the three-year civil war between a Saudi-led coalition and Iran-linked Houthi rebels. Human Rights Watch says security forces linked to the UAE, which is a leading member of the coalition, have systematically abused women and children before forcing them to return to their countries of origin and preventing access to aid agencies.
"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," said Bill Frelick, refugee rights director at HRW.
The group based its report on interviews with eight migrants, mostly Ethiopians who were held at a migrant detention center in Aden run by UAE-backed security forces. "Every night, they would take one, to rape them," a former detainee said. "Not all of them. The small ones," he said, adding that he knew of seven boys who were sexually assaulted.
Tens of thousands of people from impoverished East African nations like Ethiopia and Somalia try to reach Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states every year. The International Organization for Migration says some 87,000 people sought to reach war-torn Yemen from the Horn of Africa by boat in 2017.
Migrants pay traffickers for rides in boats across the narrow waters to Yemen, where they then make their way by land through a war zone in which there is no central authority. The turmoil has left migrants vulnerable to abuse and cruelty at the hands of the armed trafficking rings, many believed to be protected by the multiple militias involved in the war.
The HRW report focused on southern part of Yemen, where the UAE has the upper hand through newly-formed militias that are separate from government security forces. The UAE is part of the coalition, which is ostensibly trying to restore President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi's government, but it has been at odds with Hadi for months and its forces have clashed with his.
The HRW report quoted Yemen's interior minister, Ahmed al-Maysari, as saying that he removed the commander of the Aden detention center from his post and moved the migrants to another facility while an investigation is underway.
But HRW said migrants are still being abused and then deported - sent back to their home countries by the same smuggling rings that brought them in.