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Can Yemenis escape?

So what are Yemenis to do? Close the doors of their houses and slowly die of starvation and thirst?  Or move en masse, the way Syrians are now heading for Europe?

Factories, jobs destroyed by war.Yemen,November 2015. Factories, jobs destroyed by war.Yemen,November 2015. Wikicommons/ Almigdad Mojalli ( VOA). Some rights reserved.Is the coalition air and land war against Yemenis about to end? A second round of ‘peace talks’ is scheduled to start in Geneva on 15 December. Getting to a date and a meeting which ‘both’ sides agree to attend has taken almost 6 months of efforts for Ismail Ould al Sheikh Ahmed, the new Special Envoy of the United Nations Secretary General. In addition to having had to cope with undermining by his predecessor and underwhelming support by the Permanent 5 of the UNSC, his nomination was accepted by the GCC largely because they considered him weak and ineffective. 

He has operated in less than ideal conditions: merely achieving agreement on a meeting is a significant achievement, given the reluctance of the warring parties and the international environment.  However, I have not met a single person who expects these talks to achieve very much, if anything.   Hope is free and anyone with friends and family in Yemen has to continue to have some hope, what else can we do?

The coalition

Yemen has become the focus of not only a violent and murderous civil war between factions loosely aligned with the so-called ‘legitimate’ government on the one hand and former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh and his Huthi allies on the other. While this unfortunate development was predicted by many in recent years, it was dramatically worsened by the open foreign intervention and emergence of a ‘proxy’ war between the Arab Gulf states led by a new, young and warmongering leadership in Saudi Arabia which insists that Yemen is the site of a life or death struggle against its rival Iran for domination of the politics in the Arabian Peninsula.

Iranian involvement is blown up as a major threat regardless of reality, which includes limited material support but mostly boasts of responsibility for events Iran neither sponsored nor, in many cases, even supported; some experts describe these claims as demonstrating the immaturity of some of Iran’s leadership. The coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates includes all GCC states except Oman, and a variety of other Arab and African states whose motivation for joining is probably closely related to expectations of financial support from the GCC states. 

Having upset the GCC states with its nuclear deal with Iran, the US and other western states are supinely assisting the GCC and abdicating any critical faculties, let alone respect for their own commitments through the Arms Control Treaty and other aspects of international humanitarian law.  This to the extent of continuing to supply the coalition with arms and ammunition including cluster bombs, which they know are used against civilians. Their immorality goes so far as feeble verbal protests at attacks by coalition air strikes or Huthi/Saleh shelling on humanitarian facilities, including the destruction of two hospitals run by a universally respected humanitarian organisation, Medecins sans Frontières, in addition to a total of 69 other medical facilities since March.

War-related suffering

By 2011, the country’s economy had already largely collapsed, By 2011, the country’s economy had already largely collapsed, with over 54% of the population officially considered poor, water resources running out, drought destroying the limited agriculture, extremely high unemployment, continued rapid population growth and other ills. The popular uprisings of 2011 demonstrated that hope could triumph over realistic expectation, but these hopes were soon dashed when the struggle became dominated by the various elite factions supported by an international community which sought a change in leadership but not a change in social, political or economic policies, let alone a transformation of the military/security structures.

Just to bring the record up to date.  In August this year, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross pointed out that, after 5 months of war, the situation in Yemen was as bad as that in Syria after 4 years of war, something which came as a real shock to those of us who follow the situation closely and thought that it would take at least two years to get that bad. 

By December, according to the World Health Organisation, over 15 million Yemenis (over 58% of the population of 26 million) lack access to medical services, 20 million (77%) “lack access to safe water and sanitation, and conditions are ripe for a major disease outbreak”. While the officially recorded death toll since March has reached over 5,700, this only accounts for those who died in functioning health facilities where records are kept.  This toll ignores all premature deaths due to lack of access to medical treatment for chronic [diabetes,  kidney failure etc..] or acute conditions.  Similarly, the 27,000 recorded injuries only include those who reached medical treatment.The majority of medical facilities do not operate, lacking water, electricity, medical supplies and salaries for their staff. Taking into consideration the fact that all sides in the struggle are preventing basic food, medical and other supplies from reaching those living in areas under the control of their opponents, living conditions for the vast majority of the population have reached levels of desperation. The ‘blockade’ preventing the delivery of food and fuel primarily affects the ordinary citizens. The ‘blockade’ preventing the delivery of food and fuel primarily affects the ordinary citizens. The militias and other military factions get priority access to anything that does get through, either through ‘taxation’ or by simple force of arms, thus ensuring that attempts at weakening the enemy have the primary effect of worsening hunger and disease for the populations.

While the United Nations and its humanitarian institutions are trying to help, it is worth noting first that they are only targeting 11.6 million people when their own data states that 21.2 million are in need. Second their appeal for USD 1.6 billion for this year had been only 49% funded by the end of November. Moreover much of this funding comes from the GCC states which actively ‘politically’ target their aid to prevent it from reaching the ‘rebel’ controlled areas. Saudi Arabia, the largest funder, immediately pledged to finance the full USD 274 million requested by the UN for humanitarian work in April; that was the easy bit and good public relations. Then it proceeded to set up the King Salman Centre for Relief and Humanitarian Aid in May to manage the disbursement of these funds. It then decided that each of the nine main UN organisations would have to sign one or more separate Memoranda of Understanding (MOU), thus ensuring further delay: the largest one was with the World Food Programme for USD 143 million agreed in September. These slow procedures have obviously delayed the delivery of assistance, regardless of the complex conditions imposed and the deep gratitude which the heads of each of these institutions expresses grandiloquently on receiving each cheque.

In the absence of any legitimate means of earning income to survive, Yemenis are more dependent than ever on their friends and relatives abroad. Such support is almost impossible to send because the international banking system is, occasionally at least, refusing to make transfers to Yemen.  Meanwhile prices of all basic foods are rocketing: since March prices have risen on average by 57% for wheat, 74% for onions, 325% for cooking gas, 287% for diesel and 274% for petrol. These are average, things are far worse in the frontline areas [Taiz, al Baidha, Mareb and Jawf] and the areas which are furthest away from the ports. This is partly due to the unavailability of these basic products because of reduced imports (thanks to damage of the port infrastructures and preventing many commercial ships from entering) and the cost of in-country transport due to fuel shortages. In this context the suggestion that famine is just round the corner hardly comes as a surprise. Water shortage is possibly even greater than that of food, as diesel is essential for much of the pumping necessary to extract the little available water. Costs rise throughout the system as checkpoints by any one of the many armed groups collect their share of goods going past them. This week, the newly appointed Governor of Aden and his escort were assassinated by a car bomb. He was widely respected by the city’s population for actually trying to help.

Meanwhile the situation on the ground continues to deteriorate: this week, the newly appointed Governor of Aden and his escort were assassinated by a car bomb. He was widely respected by the city’s population for actually trying to help improve security and governance in the city and was having an impact on the situation. In the past three years many, if not all, middle ranking officials, whether military or civilian, who demonstrated commitment to their responsibilities and tried to improve the abysmal living conditions of the population, have been threatened and many have been killed. Who is behind these assassinations? Whose interests do they serve? Clearly those who want to see the country sink even further into lawlessness, havoc and turmoil. And these include not only the usually blamed and suspected Al Qaeda or Daesh but also Saleh whose policy since having to give up the presidency in 2012 has been après moi le deluge and has, unfortunately most successfully, done his best to demonstrate that without him in the driving seat, the country would collapse. After decades of suspicion by all except his international political supporters, his close relationship with some of the previously mentioned elements has been explicitly mentioned in a recent report by the United Nations Sanctions Committee.

With all this, did Yemenis really also need the damage caused by two historically unprecedented cyclones hitting different parts in November? Just one of the many signs of the kind of events likely to become more frequent with the worsening of climate change.

Can Yemenis escape?

Escaping to neighbouring countries is barely an option. Travel to Saudi Arabia has been severely restricted since 1990, with a fence/wall being built along much of the border between the two countries, and since the war started a few border posts have been opened where some Yemenis are allowed in, mostly those from the south, and under restrictions. Who is behind these assassinations? Whose interests do they serve?

New regulations have enabled many illegal Yemeni migrants in Saudi Arabia to regularise their situation, but these changes are more a security measure to control Yemenis than a humanitarian one to relieve suffering. The UN says that 30 000 Yemenis have entered Saudi Arabia between March and end of November. The border with Oman has been controlled by a fence constructed in the1970s to prevent the infiltration of weapons and support to the People’s Front for the Liberation of Oman who were defeated in 1975: but the fence has  remained ever since. As a result only 500 Yemenis have been allowed in to Oman, by contrast with 50, 500 third party nationals! Travel by sea has been of little attraction in recent years when Somalis, Ethiopians and Eritreans were taking refuge in Yemen to get away from their own civil wars, climate induced droughts, and starvation. The crossing is exceedingly dangerous. The overwhelming majority of nearly 30, 000 who have gone to Somalia are Somalis, but over 3,000 are Yemenis who are so desperate that they have headed that way, while Djibouti has received over 16, 000 Yemenis. Overall the total number who left Yemen is close to 170, 000, but only 52, 000 of these are Yemenis.

Travel to western states has been exceedingly difficult for many years even, in some cases, decades as a result of general constraints on the movement of poor people around the world, in this case worsened by the ‘threat’ posed by less than a handful of aggressive armed Islamists. Why or how an insignificant number of failed attempts at causing explosions on aircraft can or should be used to demonise and punish the entire population of a country is a question rarely asked of our immigration services or political rulers. But the result is that most Yemenis don’t even attempt to come to Europe or the USA and the latest suggestion by Donald Trump that ‘all Muslims should be prevented from coming to the USA’ is just another racist slur which unfortunately colours the debate, worsens perceptions and increases hostility.

Until recently, Yemenis could travel without visas to Jordan, Syria, Egypt, and Malaysia. It can safely be assumed that few would chose to go to Syria where the war is as bad or worse than in Yemen.  Egypt, where there are already many Yemenis, does not provide a friendly and conducive atmosphere and has recently restricted visa-free entry to Yemenis over 45 or under 13 years of age. In the latest discouraging development, Jordanian authorities have cancelled their hospitable approach and demand visas; where is the Jordanian embassy in Yemen? Does it have a functioning visa service accessible to people?  Only Malaysia remains, but for how much longer?

So what are Yemenis to do? Close the doors of their houses and slowly die of starvation and thirst?  Try to get into boats and cross into Africa? Or face the minefields on the borders of Saudi Arabia and move en masse, the way Syrians are now heading for Europe? Is there any sense of humanity and solidarity left in the world?

About the author

Helen Lackner has worked in all parts of Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for close to 15 years.  She has written about the country’s political economy as well as social and economic issues.  She works as a freelance rural development consultant in Yemen and elsewhere. Her new book Yemen in Crisis: autocracy, neo-liberalism and the disintegration of a state will be published by Saqi books in October. Meanwhile you can still read Why Yemen Matters, Saqi books 2014


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