Tuesday 19 January 2016
Discussions began with the political situation as one representative talked about a visit she had made with the BBC to North Yemen in August/September 2015, 5 months into the conflict, for a series of Newsnight programmes. North Yemen is mostly controlled by Houthis so there wasn’t much evidence of fighting by the rebel group there. Rather, Houthis were more active in fighting in the South, particularly in Aden and Taiz. She was most struck by Omar who she met in an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp in Hajjah. Refugee camps are no longer place of refuge as IDPs move from camp to camp as a result of attacks. Omar had been sipping tea on his porch when it was struck by an airstrike. Omar wanted to tell the world that they are not going to succeed by fighting, they need to negotiate- “They could save us all from so much sorrow if they would just sit around a table and negotiate.” It was noted that a definitive military victory was seen as impossible. The only people paying the price for this war were the Yemenis.
Discussion then moved on to the UN peace talks in Biel, Switzerland in December 2015, where one representative had been present. Ahead of the talks, parties were optimistic that the pressure put on the Government of Yemen, the Saudis and, to a lesser extent, the Houthis, would lead to a political solution. There had been progress but as the ceasefire on the ground was broken by both sides, the talks failed. It was suggested that delegates saw the talks as a bit of theatre to reassure allies that they were serious about a political solution. There needed to be further pressure put on parties to hold the ceasefire on the ground. It was mentioned that one of main outcomes from the peace talks was to allow humanitarian access to besieged cities. Since the blockade on ports was lifted in October, it had mostly been the North which had benefitted from the shipments which had been allowed in.
Concerns were raised about the city of Taiz, which had been under siege by the Houthis for months leaving the people there with no food, water or medicine. Taiz was compared to Madaya in Syria but the voices of the people from Taiz are not being heard outside. A representative talked of friends who had tried to take water into Taiz but had been arrested by Houthi fighters and tortured.
Taiz was the third largest city in Yemen, with only one crossing for access in and out of the city. It was explained that families were only allowed to bring in one kilo of food. Hospitals were not allowed to bring in oxygen or cancer drugs. Consequently there was a very high mortality rate.
MSF and ICRC had failed to bring medicines into the city. UN agencies had so far failed to convince Houthi forces to allow them to take food and supplies into city. Taiz had featured in the recent peace talks but no solution was committed to. The priorities of the peace talks had been to agree the release of political detainees and to open humanitarian access to the country. It was noted that the Syrian city Madaya received significantly more media coverage than Taiz, and that the Houthis are a militia, hence it was difficult to deal with them via the Government of Yemen. It was stressed that war crimes were being committed in Yemen by both sides and that an independent international investigation into war crimes in the country was needed. Members heard that people in North Yemen were not aware of what was happening in Taiz and the South, so Houthis were able to recruit more easily in the North.
The discussion then moved on to the economic situation, with concerns that the economy in Yemen was going from bad to worse. Members heard that economic activity had come to a standstill. For example, manufacturing and food-related activities had ceased with the consequence that there was no supply to the market. The conflict had resulted in the creation of a black market in which prices were inflated by up to 300-400 times. This motivated those that were profiting to keep the war going.
Members were told that the crisis was affecting the entire Yemeni population, with 25 million people at risk of the effects of famine caused by a crippling economy. It was pointed out that aid programmes could only be effective if there was also commercial activity. Aid programmes alone could not cater for the whole country. One representative urged the international community to allow humanitarian aid in to Yemen and for manufacturing activity to continue. Commercial activity had been made difficult as premises and infrastructure have been damaged by the conflict. Concerns were raised about the fragile banking sector in Yemen and the need to support the country’s Central Bank. Only 10% of needs in Yemen can be provided for by the aid system so the country needs a commercial sector and for that it needs strong banks.
Returning to the point made on famine in Yemen, one representative clarified that the UN had said Yemen was on the brink of famine 5 months earlier. Much as food was available in Yemen, it was too expensive for most of the population. 80% of the population were reliant on imported food.
The humanitarian crisis was described as collective punishment- the population was being punished for the actions of the Houthis. Continuing the discussion on the economy, Members heard that 77% of private businesses had shut down causing 71% of people employed in private sector to lose their income. If the private sector were allowed to function as it had been, it would contribute to the economy and the workforce, and the country wouldn’t be so dependent on international aid.
It was argued that a more holistic approach was needed to treat the crisis in Yemen. One representative said it was like treating a cancer, explaining that you can’t just treat the cancer in the hand and leave the rest of the body. He pointed to two problems causing tremendous effects on the population- one being the war and the other the blockade. The war was causing direct deaths, while the blockade was indirectly causing deaths- to people, the economy, supplies, and services. He pointed to fuel, which was 286% more expensive than before the war. 2.3m people had been internally displaced, mainly in areas such as Taiz, Aden and Saadah. Major cities with big populations like Taiz had been without electricity for more than 6 months. The impact of this on hospitals, schools, services, and businesses had been catastrophic for the population, particularly on maternal and child health. Prices had skyrocketed while nearly everybody was unemployed.
Members heard data obtained on the health system in Yemen as an example to illustrate the scale of the crisis:
26,000 injuries, 5,700 deaths, and displacement that exceeds 400 times what it had been before the war;
Acute malnutrition rates doubled;
Famine already at level 3 in 10 governorates. Another 10 (out of Yemen’s 22 governorates) would enter level 3 in the next few months;
The health sector was about to fail, which had resulted in outbreaks of dengue fever and measles. Polio was eradicated in 2006 but there were fears of an outbreak due to lack of ongoing vaccinations;
Health facilities had been bombed by airstrikes and Houthis had damaged services in Taiz;
1.6 million IDPs in Hodeidah and areas with a high risk of malaria;
25% of health facilities and 25% of ambulances had been bombed;
Of those health facilities that remain, only half had any stock to provide treatments;
Business had increased for the private health sector because the public health sector was failing.
The out-of-pocket expenditure on healthcare had increased from 70% to 91%.
Members were told that the war needed to stop and that the international community needed to put pressure on regional powers to stop the war.
The meeting then moved to questions. On Taiz, it was explained that the only way to get supplies in was by smuggling. There was no humanitarian corridor. There were only 3 hospitals functioning in the Governorate of Taiz for 1.5 million people. Taiz was called the worst of the humanitarian crisis. One representative spoke of family friends in Taiz who stayed in their house because they couldn’t go anywhere. They got one or two kilos of food a day, depending on the mood of the guards. There was no school for the children. They had said that they were “waiting to see when they would die”. Members heard that Taiz was the only political capital the Houthis had. At the peace talks, priority was given to discussions on political prisoners (which included three days of talks about the President’s brother) and Taiz. Taiz was resolved quickly at the talks. For two days, trucks entered Taiz until the third day, when the Government pushed on the ground towards Sana’a, and the Houthis took hold of their Taiz card again.
When asked why the eyes of world are not on Yemen like Syria, one representative held the media responsible, the majority of which was Gulf funded or allied with Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Since the war, nobody would commission documentaries on Yemen. There had also been a crackdown on journalists, with no international journalists entering the country for four months. UK arms exports were also raised as a problem and that the supply of arms to warring parties needed to be stopped.
Questions then moved to the impact of the conflict on children. Members heard that at the beginning of the war all schools in Yemen were closed for seven months. There had been a rise in severe malnutrition among children. 71% of population were unemployed, children were not going to school and students are not going to university. At the same time, extremist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) and Daesh could offer people a salary. It was explained that people were joining these groups because they needed an income, not because they agreed with the ideologies. AQAP and Daesh were winning, and were flourishing in the environment the war had created.
Members asked for clarification on what impact opening ports would have, compared with other forms of support to the private sector, and heard that support for the private sector would help more in the short to medium term. It was explained that ports had been damaged, making it difficult to get shipments in and processed, and to allow for the onward distribution of aid.
The final question asked what DFID should be looking at to make sure humanitarian assistance would make a difference in Yemen, the response to which stressed the importance of a political solution. Progressive peace talks were needed with trust building measures such as ending sieges. The diaspora representatives called on the UK Government to push for trust-building measures and a political solution.
29 April 2016