Yemen is facing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis today as a result of a civil war that began in 2015. In 2019, United Nations estimations revealed that the civil war has left about 80% of Yemen’s population, i.e., 24 million people, in need of humanitarian aid. As per the 2019 estimations, 20 million Yemenis are facing food insecurity, 19.7 million are unable to get adequate healthcare, 17.8 million lack accesses to safe water and 2.2 million children are acutely malnourished. As of January 2020, the war has produced nearly four million internally displaced persons.
In order to understand the heightened levels of need and lack of access to adequate humanitarian aid in Yemen, it is imperative to understand the 5-year-old civil war and the parties involved.
The conflict began in late 2014, when the Houthi Armed Movement, formerly known as Ansar Allah, took control of the northern Saada province and neighboring areas in Yemen. Houthi forces gradually seized the capital Sanaa and unseated the internationally recognized government of Yemen headed by Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. The Houthi forces demanded a new government and lower fuel prices. In March 2015, the Houthis moved towards Aden, the new seat of the Hadi- led government, consequently forcing President Hadi into exile abroad.
Simultaneously, a Saudi-led coalition consisting of The United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Sudan, and Morocco came into the picture. The coalition received logistical support from US, UK, and France. The Saudi-led coalition launched airstrikes against the Houthi forces with the declared intention of reseating the Hadi Government. Saudi Arabia believed the Houthi Forces to have been backed by regional rival and Shia majority country, Iran. Though Iran initially denied the charge, in 2019 the Iranian Chief of Staff admitted that Iran did provide advisory and intellectual support to the Houthis.
Fighting has been ongoing between the two groups since 2015 with intermittent ceasefires and breach of ceasefires. Today, Houthi forces have a stronghold over all of northern Yemen except the Ma’rib Governorate. Tensions escalated recently between UAE and Saudi the two major decision-makers in the anti-Houthi coalition, when the Southern Transitional Council a separatist movement backed by the UAE, declared in April, self-administration for the southern governorates including Aden and the strategically important Socotra Island.
Numerous other factors such as regional tensions, ideological differences, and disregard for regional agreements keep the war ongoing. It is also hard to dismiss the argument that the war in Yemen is just a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran to curb the latter’s influence in the Middle East. Either way, the brunt of this devastating war is borne by the Yemeni population, millions of whom are on the brink of death due to starvation and preventable diseases such as cholera.
How the Crisis has Worsened in light of the Pandemic
Years of conflict has left the healthcare care system of Yemen in tatters. International humanitarian law calls for the special protection of medical facilities and personnel to ensure the availability of healthcare throughout an armed conflict. Flagrant violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law by the Houthi Forces and the Saudi-Emarati led coalition has ensured the systematic denial of access to adequate healthcare for the people of Yemen.
In Yemen, more than half of the healthcare system is defunct or functioning only partially. Over the years of armed conflict, the different factions have taken over treatment centers, looted their facilities and threatened, injured, kidnapped, and killed health workers, prompting almost all foreign medical professionals, who comprise 25 percent of the total workforce, to flee the country. Yemen now has only 10 health workers per 10,000 people, less than half of the minimum number recommended by the World Health Organisation.
The pre-existing deficiencies in the state’s health care system due to years of conflict have sufficiently handicapped Yemen’s response to the pandemic. With around 20 million already in need of humanitarian aid and 50% of the population without access to clean water, the country’s public healthcare system cannot bear the additional burden caused by COVID-19.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that the healthcare system of Yemen has in effect collapsed in light of the coronavirus pandemic. On April 10th, Yemen reported its first case of COVID-19. As of June 6th, Yemen has a total of 469 confirmed cases and 111 deaths. However, the United Nations has stated that the number of cases in Yemen is much higher than those reported since tests remain is short supply in the war-torn country. It has been reported that people were being turned away from treatment centers because the staff lacked Personal Protection Equipment (PPE).
The OCHA head has stated that the situation in Yemen is extremely alarming. COVID-19 is worsening the already dire situation for millions affected by the humanitarian crisis, as the country grapples with a near collapse of essential public health services, severe economic decline, food insecurity, and massive displacement.Hence, it is no surprise that the case fatality rate form COVID-19 is significantly higher across Yemen- close to 25%- as compared to the rest of the world where it is only 7%. In addition to the crumbling healthcare system, the warring parties in Yemen have been blocking humanitarian aid from abroad further crippling Yemen’s response to the pandemic. In effect, the people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease, and death as the world watches.
International Response to the Humanitarian Crisis
Numerous international organisations, global non-governmental organisations and world leaders among others have pledged their support to end the humanitarian crisis in Yemen for years now. However, most recently, the UN along with Saudi Arabia conducted a pledging conference to raise around $2.41 billion for the humanitarian effort in Yemen to continue from June to December. It is understood that if the adequate funds are not secured, around 31 of the 41 major humanitarian programmes run in Yemen by the United Nations will be shut down. Already, the global body’s World Food Programme (WFP) had to cut rations in half, and UN-funded health services were reduced in 189 out of 369 hospitals nationwide.
On 3rd June 2020, it was reported that the pledging conference was successful in securing funds to the tune of $1.35 billion. Saudi Arabia, a major player in the civil war pledged 500 million dollars while UAE an important member of the coalition did not pledge anything. The UK and the US pledged 200 and 225 million dollars respectively. However, the amount raised in the pledging conference held on June 2, is lesser than the fixed target of 2.41 billion dollars.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has stated that the internally displaced persons would be the ones most affected by the shortage of funds. UNHCR is currently joining efforts with International Organization for Migration (IOM), other UN sister agencies, and humanitarian partners to provide crucial assistance to those displaced. To date UNHCR has reached, through partners, more than 5,000 displaced families in Marib. UNHCR also plans to scale up protection assistance, including legal advice and counseling and will help those without documentation. This is in addition to psycho-social support for those displaced and affected by the conflict.
In addition to the shortage of funds, humanitarian efforts in Yemen are also hampered due to the obstruction by Houthi forces and the Internationally Recognized Government (IRG). Human Rights Watch has reported that the Yemeni government authorities and Houthi forces have consistently placed constraints on the aid offered to Yemenis. Earlier this year, Houthi authorities had been accused by the UN of having diverted the food aid from WFP, demanding a 2 percent cut from the entire UN-led aid budget, refusing biometric registration conditions to reduce corruption, and placing otherwise unnecessary restrictions on northern Yemen relief operations.There are problems in Government-held areas as well, including bureaucratic impediments and insecurity. Humanitarian organizations are still waiting for Government officials to approve 43 projects that would assist 2.3 million people. Many of these requests have been pending for months.
Years of conflict has left millions of civilians in need of aid. Millions more have been displaced. This conflict has directly killed 100,000 civilians in addition to the men, women, and children who die every year from starvation. Children die every day due to malnutrition and preventable diseases. The hardship endured by the people of Yemen will continue to worsen in the face of the pandemic. Peace is the best chance Yemen has to contain COVID-19.
Even though world leaders have pledged millions of dollars in support of Yemenis, no concrete steps have been taken in furtherance of peace. In fact, international humanitarian law has consistently been violated by the warring parties. In light of this, the millions of dollars being pledged every year cannot be seen as anything but an attempt by world leaders involved in the war to gloss over their crimes and change the narrative.
UNHCR has stated that only a peaceful resolution of the conflict can halt further suffering and stem humanitarian needs. The international community should call upon the leaders of the warring sides to respect international humanitarian law, take into consideration the pitiful condition of the people of Yemen, and unconditionally end the war that has needlessly taken too many lives.
“The humanitarian crisis in Yemen remains the worst in the world, warns UN”, UN News, 14 February 2019.
“Yemen’s health care system collapses under the weight of pandemic”, World Socialist Web Site, 28 May 2020.
“Coronavirus: Yemen’s healthcare system ‘in effect collapsed’”, BBC News, 22 May 2020.
IOM Yemen COVID-19 Response Update (17- 30 May 2020), reliefweb.int, 5 June 2020.
 “The people of Yemen are being subjected to deprivation, disease, and death as the world watches”, OCHA, 30 May 2017.
“UN, Saudi Arabia seeks to raise $2.41bn for war-torn Yemen”, AlJazeera, 2 June 2020.
“Peace needed more than ever after five years of conflict in Yemen deepens suffering”, UNHCR, 27 March 2020.
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 Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mr. Mark Lowcock, Briefing to the Security Council on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, reliefweb.int,16 April 2020.
“’Significant progress’ made towards a lasting ceasefire in Yemen, UN Special Envoy tells Security Council”, UN News, 14 May 2020.