The current crisis in Yemen will only add to the fraying of an already extremely fragile country and worsen an unfolding human tragedy. Thousands have died since the outbreak of fighting in 2014, and more are lost every day as the Saudi-led coalition—the latest entrants into the conflict—conducts air strikes in support of President Hadi.
The World Food Program (WFP) summarizes the situation in Yemen as “large scale displacement, civil conflict, food insecurity, high food prices, endemic poverty, diminishing resources (water and hydrocarbons) and influxes of refugees and migrants.” All this in a country where a 2014 WFP food security survey found 41 percent of the population (10.6 million) to be food insecure and 5 million severely so. In short, Yemenis are unable to buy or produce the food they need. The northern governorate of Sa’ada, where the Houthi rebels hail from, is among the worst hit.
The head of advocacy for Oxfam in Yemen, Grant Pritchard, says that 60 percent of the Yemeni population (16 million) are in need of assistance—an 8 percent increase since just 2014. One in three people in the Middle East needing assistance is Yemeni and currently many aid agencies are desperately trying to maintain their dwindling operations. Yet, the U.N.’s donor appeal in 2014 was only 58 percent funded.
As the trade blockade imposed by the coalition continues, it is also worth remembering that 80 percent of the country’s food needs come from abroad, including 90 percent of its wheat and all of its rice. Unless the blockade is lifted soon, food shortages will become acute. While sporadic aid flights have brought in medicine and health supplies to Sanaa, they have been a small share of what is needed.
Then there are Yemen’s refugees from abroad and its internally displaced persons (IDPs). Among the first casualties of the Saudi-led coalition air attacks were Yemeni IDPs, when errant munitions led to some 40 deaths and 200 wounded in the north of the country. This tragedy highlighted the presence of IDPs in the country and the prospect of their numbers increasing dramatically if the current fighting intensifies and large population centers are impacted. As of January 2015, the UNHCR cited over 330,000 IDPs while the government’s executive unit for IDPs cites a total of 500,000 over the past decade. Aid agencies report at least an additional 100,000 displaced this past week as Aden became a ghost town.
However, Yemen is also home to some 295,000 refugees, the overwhelming majority of whom are Somalis. Indeed, Yemen is the only country that actually grants Somalis automatic refugee status. Those caught trying to make it into the Gulf Cooperation Council countries must apply for Refugee Status Determination, which requires documentation and takes months to complete. Often these applications are not approved. As of August 2014, Yemen was also granting temporary protection to documented Syrians, allowing access to education for their children and other services such as health for all. It is estimated that at the time there were some 12,000 Syrians and 3,300 Iraqis in the country assisted by the UNHCR. Between the IDPs and refugees this makes for nearly 660,000 persons that have to be cared for—in addition, that is, to those currently fleeing Aden.
In addition, Yemeni families have been escaping to Somalia’s Somaliland and Puntland, while hundreds have already arrived in Djibouti. The UNHCR is making contingency plans to receive in the next six months up to 30,000 refugees in Djibouti and up to 100,000 in Somalia. These would include Yemenis as well as returning Somalis.
Unless the fighting in Yemen ends quickly, a humanitarian disaster will unfold, with untold consequences. Now is the time for the international community to act and get the warring parties to agree to at least a humanitarian corridor for the delivery of food and medicine.