Shibam Wadi Hadhramaut Yemen by Jialiang Gao

Invisible Victims: Yemen’s Hidden Refugee Crisis

Somalia is seldom considered a safe haven. However, in 2016 over 34,000 refugees were desperate enough to deem it safer than remaining in their home country of Yemen.  Hundreds of thousands have made the decision to flee to destinations including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. The conflict in Yemen and its associated humanitarian disaster are passing by largely unnoticed while the Western world is focused on the more immediately impactful refugee crisis associated with Syria’s civil war. Meanwhile, Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is worsening every day.

The Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country is gripped by a conflict that has killed over 6,800 people and left over 2.8 million people internally displaced, while regional and local actors exploit the instability. While the European Union has been implementing multiple policies to support and integrate Syrian refugees, albeit with mixed results, there is far less public and policymaker awareness of the burgeoning humanitarian disaster in Yemen. Over 21.1 million people are estimated to need humanitarian assistance – 81% of the Yemeni population. Meanwhile, over 267,000 people have fled the country.

The international community overlooks Yemen at its peril. The humanitarian catastrophe has the potential to further destabilize a weak country with a security vacuum that is facilitating the rise of extremism, with repercussions for neighboring countries and potential for Yemen to serve as a base to plan future terror attacks abroad.

One reason for the lack of attention is that Yemen is simply farther from Europe. Although some have fled to Europe, the majority are seeking refuge in neighboring Oman and Saudi Arabia – which is bombing the rebel government in Yemen, as well as fleeing west to Africa, with the top three African destinations being Djibouti, Somalia, and Sudan. This renders Yemeni refugees a less pressing concern for European governments than the high numbers of Syrian refugees, but presents a substantial challenge in the region, with the potential to exacerbate regional instabilies in receiving countries which cannot support the influx of refugees. Moreover, Yemen has historically served as both a destination and a transit point for refugees fleeing other countries; Somalis and Ethiopians in particular have fled to Yemen, which was the only Arabian Peninsula state to sign the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, and they are now facing serious challenges from the instability in Yemen.

Once refugees arrive at their destinations, they often find themselves with limited options and little support. Yemenis were deemed ineligible for the European refugee relocation program because of low levels of successful asylum acceptance, but they find themselves in a bind where they are also ineligible to return back to Yemen, because the International Organization for Migration, which returns refugees home, deems Yemen unsafe. This leaves many stranded at their point of entry – usually Greece – adding to the existing strains on Greek resources, as Greece is also a major entry point for refugees fleeing Syria. Not only is the Yemeni crisis not on the global radar, but the few Yemenis who make it to Europe are being stymied at their point of entry while other nationalities face more options for support and assistance.

Between 6,000 and 8,000 Yemenis areestimated to be stranded in Egypt, having either fled the country or happened to be traveling in Egypt when the war began in March 2015, when Yemeni airports and sea ports were blockaded and Yemenis abroad – many with families waiting back in Yemen – found themselves unable to return home.

Humanitarian organizations, including Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children, are aware of the humanitarian disaster in Yemen and are actively providing assistance in the country. However, they are hampered by the security challenges on the ground. Yemen has limited health care resources, and over 270 health facilities have sustained damage since the start of the conflict in March 2015. The Saudi-led bombing campaign has hit international medical facilities, including those belonging to Doctors Without Borders. While over 1,219 children have been killed in the conflict, the lack of health care resources has resulted in an estimated 10,000 children dying each year from preventable causes. Scarce medication has increased in cost by an estimated 300 percent, exacerbating the lack of access to health care.

The fact that civilians are turning to extremist groups – considering them more stable than the government and security forces – vividly illustrates the magnitude of the Yemen crisis.

The ongoing conflict is also prompting medical professionals to flee the country as part of the refugee exodus, further diminishing Yemen’s capacity to care for its citizens and to rebound from the conflict. Attempts at peace talks in Yemen have included humanitarian ceasefires, with limited success and numerous violations by the warring parties.

As examined in a previous article, there are poor prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict in the near future, with regional actors – notably Saudi Arabia and Iran – exploiting the instability and fueling a proxy conflict in Yemen. The lack of robust infrastructure and medical facilities further undermines resilience, lessening the Yemeni people’s capacity to withstand and rebound from the conflict. This instability increases the appeal of extremist organizations with a presence in the country, primarily al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

AQAP has benefitted from the conflict, increasing its membership, territorial influence, and operational capacity. At the outset of the conflict, the group was suffering low membership and operational abilities, and a concerted challenge for influence from the growing Islamic State, which had also established a presence in Yemen. Now, however, the highly-organized extremists in AQAP have expanded the group’s influence across the country, exploiting the security vacuum left by a state tearing itself apart.

Particularly relevant for this analysis is the impact on civilians. Impoverished and vulnerable Yemenis in areas such as the southern governorate of Hadhramout have accepted AQAP is providing more stability than the alternatives – the weak Yemeni government or the Houthi rebels. Local tribes are engaged in tacit alliances with AQAP, permitting the organization to train and expand and, in some cases, govern territory, maintaining infrastructure and providing local services.

The fact that civilians are turning to extremist groups – considering them more stable than the government and security forces – vividly illustrates the magnitude of the Yemen crisis. The ongoing conflict, humanitarian crisis, and exploitation of the security vacuum by militants all point to a drawn-out conflict in which civilians will continue to suffer or flee to other countries in the region. The ongoing crisis is reverberating around the region, with regional countries – notably Djibouti, Sudan, and Somalia – straining to handle the influx of refugees. Military victory is a distant prospect for either side and attempts at diplomatic negotiations have failed repeatedly. The most probable prospect is a protracted conflict with losses on both sides, weak security provision that will further benefit extremists and separatist elements within the country, and a humanitarian disaster that is already harming an estimated 81% of the population, with no end in sight.

Yet despite this, Yemen largely remains invisible.

Maria Robson is a former Security Intelligence Analyst for the energy industry and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in International Security and Political Science. Her areas of focus include the Americas, North and West Africa, and the Middle East.

Photo credit: Jialiang Gao 

Data table credit: UNHCR 

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