Summary: the war and the humanitarian disaster it has caused have received intermittent coverage but the story of Yemen’s 4.3 million IDPs has been virtually ignored.
We thank Helen Lackner for today’s article. She has worked in Yemen since the 1970s and lived there for nearly 15 years, and writes about the country’s political, social and economic issues. Helen works as a freelance rural development consultant and is a visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations. She is the author of Yemen in Crisis, the Road to War published by Verso, a seminal study of the current war and what lies behind it; a revised edition with additional material is coming out shortly. On 15 July Routledge published her new study Yemen: Poverty and Conflict. (Here’s how to purchase the book and secure a 20% publisher discount.) Helen’s most recent Arab Digest podcast ‘Yemen, a ceasefire and reason to hope’ is available here.
Unlike many other crises which see massive population movements across borders to escape fighting, economic collapse and humanitarian disaster, in Yemen the overwhelming majority of those forced to leave their homes remain in the country itself. Indeed, cross border movements still involve thousands arriving in Yemen [usually hoping to make their way to Saudi Arabia] from the Horn of Africa countries: the low figure of 27,700 people in 2021 has already been overtaken in the first 7 months of 2022 with 34,000 arriving in Yemen, the overwhelming majority of whom are Ethiopian. Only a few thousand Yemenis have crossed the Red Sea in a reverse movement to take refuge in the region: in 2021 the UNHCR stated there were just over 5000 Yemenis in Djibouti and 8,300 in Somalia. Given the complexity of Yemeni movements between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, these are not discussed here, as they are affected by Saudi labour migration rules and although many Yemenis in Saudi Arabia lack official documentation, the vast majority are seeking employment opportunities though, obviously, with the war, their needs are greater. About 50,000 Yemenis are believed to be in Oman as a result of the war.
Yemenis in both Somalia and Djibouti are mostly poor and conforming to the stereotypical war and humanitarian refugees. More affluent people, such as professionals and other members of the ‘middle class’ have moved to Jordan, Türkiye and mostly Egypt, the latter’s main attractions being its significantly lower cost of living and the comparative ease of obtaining visas. Although some estimate that millions of Yemenis have moved to Egypt, a more realistic figure is in the region of 800,000, while a mere 12,000 were registered with UNHCR in Jordan, though at least as many other Yemenis are unregistered. Probably the majority of the 30,000 Yemenis in Türkiye have chosen it on the basis of political affinity, but they also include other middle class war displaced as well as business people and students.
None of these figures compare with the 4.3 million people who have become internally displaced (IDP) since the war started in 2015, this being currently the fourth largest IDP population in the world. The majority of these people have taken refuge with relatives and friends in locations relatively close to their homes. This enables them to move back home when the military situation permits, on a more or less permanent basis, depending on the status of fighting. When displaced, their presence is a major cause for social and economic tensions in the host families and communities, as the displaced relatives need to be fed and housed, often in situations where the host families and communities are themselves on the verge of destitution and live in overcrowded conditions with insufficient resources and work opportunities. So IDPs often find that they are forced to overstay their welcome. Many of them and their hosts lack access to the humanitarian support they need.
More than 1.3 million displaced people are unable to find relatives or friends to host them, and are dispersed in the 2,300 hosting sites located throughout the country, ranging in size from a few shelters to hundreds. A recent detailed evaluation of the humanitarian interventions in Yemen has pointed out that the services provided in the sites are ‘inadequate or non-existent’ and that only two of the 32 camps its team visited ‘could be said to be functioning with anything approaching minimum standards. For most, there was either extremely poor or non-existent sanitation, intermittent water supply, inadequate shelter and low coverage of basic assistance.’ Displaced people’s priorities are obviously shelter and food, given that most people leave home with only what they can carry and has not been destroyed or damaged, so they reach camps completely destitute.
The war is the main reason for most people being forced to abandon their homes, but there are other reasons, in particular the serious floods which have affected many parts of the country in the last three years. War related movements follow the ebb and flow of frontline fighting, and the majority of those displaced blame fighting in their neighbourhoods or destruction of their homes and environment for their displacement. About 10% of them blame the collapse of their economic circumstances due to the war as the main cause for leaving. In 2021 the vast majority of the displaced were located in Hodeida, Taiz, Dhali’, Sana’a and Marib governorates. With shifts and changes in front lines, particularly in Marib and Hodeida, thousands of households have been displaced more than once, shifting from one ill-equipped site to another.
Due to limited changes in the military situation and the major climate-related disasters since 2020, the number of those displaced by climate related events is increasing each year. In 2021, 206,000 people were affected by flood damage, and this year, the devastating floods of August had already affected 18 governorates [of the country’s 22], with more 300,000 people affected by end August. The majority of them are people in displacement sites, as these are frequently located in areas subject to flash floods and other rain events, as ‘normal’ housing is not built there.
One side-effect of displacement is the loss of earning capacity, as people leave the areas where they have land, jobs, even casual employment; in displacement, they compete with local people for whatever limited employment opportunities are available, such as casual work in agriculture or elsewhere. A UNHCR survey in the first half of 2022, found that 55% of the IDP households it assessed had no income, while a further 35% had less than YR 25,000 monthly income at a time when the minimum average food basket costs YR 49,000 for a household of 7 people in Houthi controlled areas and YR 105,000 in IRG-controlled areas [see our posting of 20 July 2022.]
So it is unsurprising that 94% of responds said they were unable to manage their daily food needs. In addition, the main provider of humanitarian food and cash distribution, the World Food Programme, has no accurate updated lists of those who should benefit from its assistance and has been forced to reduce, often by half, the amount of support it provides, due to financial constraints. This is a reminder of the very feeble response to the UN’s Humanitarian Appeal for this year at 42% when two-thirds of the year has gone. This reflects not only extreme need in other countries, ranging from the Horn of Africa to Afghanistan, but also the reduced support from Western states facing their own energy and financial crises, and the politically driven dramatic drop in support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Thus regardless of the truce and, hopefully, its extension, living conditions for ordinary Yemenis, and IDPs in particular, remain abysmal with no sign of the dramatic improvement that is urgently needed.