Q&A: Yemenis face a 'struggle for survival'
AMMAN, Jordan – Since war broke out in Yemen in March 2015, the fabric of the country has been disintegrating and the population of 27.4 million suffering untold hardship and misery. The situation there has been described as a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ and without help many more people, especially children, will die from violence, lack of food and water, illness or disease. Ayman Gharaibeh, UNHCR’s Representative to Yemen, is leading the UN Refugee Agency’s humanitarian operations and response across the country. The experienced humanitarian aid worker previously served in Yemen with UNHCR from 1992 to 1994. Gharaibeh spoke to Public Information Officer Shabia Mantoo about the desperate situation there.
Please describe the situation in Yemen at the moment.
Simply put this is nothing short of a humanitarian catastrophe. Current hostilities are taking place in a country mired by years of successive conflicts, widespread insecurity and under-development, so we now see a devastating mix of civilian casualties, mass displacement, worsening poverty, economic decline, deteriorating conditions, weakened public institutions and limited access to services. Almost two years into the conflict, we are trying to respond to a calamity in which nearly 19 million people across Yemen are in need of urgent assistance and people are suffering in truly abysmal conditions.
What are the most pressing needs for those displaced by the conflict?
The situation facing many displaced Yemenis is essentially a struggle for survival – food, water and shelter are priority needs for those who have been forced to flee elsewhere in Yemen for safety. Many are now enduring miserable and inadequate conditions living in overcrowded or makeshift shelters for months on end and without sufficient protection. More than half the population is without adequate food and health care and this will only worsen. Deteriorating conditions are also facilitating the spread of preventable communicable diseases, such as cholera, which have arisen as a consequence of the conflict.
Where is UNHCR working in Yemen and how are you responding to the crisis?
UNHCR has been present in Yemen since the 1980s. It is saddening for me personally that every time I come back to Yemen it is because of yet another war. In the early 90s there was the unification war and now more than two decades later we come back to yet another conflict.
In the current context, our response is oriented towards addressing the needs of displaced Yemenis as well as of refugees and asylum seekers in Yemen. Under the humanitarian coordination system that is activated in Yemen, we lead the shelter, non-food item, and protection response through all phases of displacement. Our prioritized assistance has to date reached more than 660,000 Yemenis most in need of the 2.2 million that have been displaced. Our winter assistance is also being delivered to reach 210,000 individuals. To help protect the rights of those forcibly displaced, we provide legal and financial assistance and psychosocial support services in addition to other programmes and interventions.
Is it difficult to deliver aid in Yemen? What are the biggest challenges for UNHCR?
Humanitarian access remains a significant issue in light of security and bureaucratic obstacles; and we also have to bear in mind that a number of proscribed organizations operate in Yemen so access is also impeded on this front. However, other reasons may be as innocuous as the fact that information flows for authorizations may not work in a systematic way, so delays can result from clearances not being received in time from the centre to the field. Nonetheless, we continue to advocate with parties to the conflict for access and we maintain a presence through field offices across Yemen. Despite these constraints, we have reached 20 of Yemen’s 21 governorates.
Is humanitarian assistance alone sufficient?
The magnitude of the crisis in Yemen is such that it cannot be addressed by humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian community alone. We are dealing with multi-layered economic and social impacts of war that are affecting literally every household in Yemen, whether through worsening poverty and the effects of the declining currency or the lack of essential services and weakened public institutions. If the situation continues we will see the public sector weaken to the point of collapse, basic infrastructure will begin to unravel and that will be one step closer to chaos. There needs to be significant redress in parallel with a political, peaceful resolution of the conflict to halt this downward spiral. There are ongoing discussions between the UN and the World Bank on how to preserve state institutions from collapsing, but that is fraught with challenges when the economic collapse is in fact the objective in this conflict.
Yemen is often referred to as a neglected crisis. Why is this so?
It is definitely a neglected crisis when compared to other regional crises. If we look at the magnitude and scale of the needs in Yemen, the attention it receives is disproportionate. This is due to a number of factors and, as disastrous as it is, the conflict hasn’t generated huge outflows of Yemeni refugees. So, in the absence of movements from Yemen and onwards to Europe, there is no spotlight on this catastrophe. Furthermore, there is also the misperception that this is only a regional crisis or a neighbourhood problem, and as a result many traditional donors don’t see the need to extend as much support.
Why is Yemen important and why should the world care?
It is very short-sighted to see Yemen as just a regional crisis, it is a global crisis with far-reaching implications. This is one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. What are the implications of a country on the brink? If instability continues to prevail in parts of the country, then proscribed organizations currently present in Yemen will benefit – and that poses a threat to global security. The world cannot afford to let Yemen slip into the abyss. Yemen must be supported and we need to keep on advocating and mobilizing support in every way we can.