As the conflict marches on in Yemen, its displaced citizens are close to a tipping point

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The conflict in Yemen is reaching dire proportions with no clear end in sight. With more and more armed groups entering the fray, and with resources fast dwindling inside the country, displaced people are becoming increasingly caught up in the complexity. Here, IDMC analyses the challenges faced by over 1 million displaced people struggling to survive in a country wracked by turmoil.

Background of the crisis

In late March 2015, a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states launched airstrikes in Yemen against the al-Houthi movement and army forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh. Their aim was to put exiled President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi back in power. Taking advantage of the subsequent power vacuum, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its control over vast parts of Yemen’s south and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has also begun launching attacks in the country, mainly targeting al-Houthi-affiliated sites and AQAP. To add to this complex mix in a heavily destabilised country, new groups have also entered loose alliances with one side or the other.

From bad to worse

Before the start of the latest crisis, Yemen was already considered the poorest country in the Arab region. Years of repeated rounds of conflict, under-development, and an absence of state authority and rule of law in many areas have fueled displacement, widespread poverty, high levels of food insecurity and a general lack of basic services.

Since this current crisis, the situation has worsened significantly, and the UN now estimates that around 80% of people in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance or protection. On 1 July, Yemen was declared a Level 3 emergency, the UN’s classification for the most severe, large-scale humanitarian crises.

In its attempt to cut off the rebels’ arms supply, the Saudi-led coalition’s blockage of imports combined with destruction caused by fighting has hit the import-dependent country hard, leading to massive gaps in service delivery and the availability of basic goods. In addition, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has documented human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict, including the shelling and destruction of civilian facilities.

As of 6 July, nearly 1,267,600 people were reported as displaced within Yemen, but some reports suggest that millions more have been unable to flee due to fuel shortages. Around 80% of IDPs live with host families, who are struggling to meet their guests’ needs in addition to their own. Many IDPs had to leave all their belongings behind and have lost access to their livelihoods. The competition for scarce resources, such as food and water, has also caused tensions between IDPs and host communities.

Other displaced people live in public buildings or makeshift structures and are facing serious health and protection risks. Some IDPs, for instance in Al Jawf governorate, have to live in the open air making them increasingly exposed to harsh weather conditions and vulnerable in a generally unsafe and unstable environment. For women, children, the disabled or the elderly such conditions are even harder to contend with.

A challenging response environment

Humanitarians have made great efforts to respond to the needs of the affected population, but have been hindered by the following challenges:

1. Insecurity and access restrictions

Access restraints due to insecurity, the presence of armed actors and the large scattering of displaced populations have hampered data collection, reporting and the distribution of relief items in many areas, particularly in Sa’ada governorate. This has created some perceptions of bias in the delivery of humanitarian assistance. The UN has been mostly confined to Sana’a and, to a large extent, has had to rely on local NGOs. The continued targeting of humanitarian facilities and the diversion of relief items by armed groups has further blocked humanitarian operations.

2. Lack of funding

Humanitarian partners have been affected by severe funding shortages. The 2015 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan requested 1.6 billion USD, but was only 14% funded as of last week. Low funding has forced humanitarian agencies such as the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to shift their focus from supporting longer term solutions that help IDPs and refugees rebuild their lives, taking instead a “care and maintenance approach” which focuses on simply saving lives. The risk here is that displacement in Yemen could become protracted, with many left locked in displacement for the foreseeable future.

What’s next?

The UN is trying to set up more offices and expand distribution to more areas, but without improved security and increased financial support, this will not be possible.

Humanitarian organisations warn that, without an immediate and permanent ceasefire (and the lifting of import restrictions) the humanitarian crisis will continue to deepen and claim more lives. The protection of civilians and the granting of humanitarian access by all parties to the conflict, in line with international humanitarian law, are essential to decrease the conflict’s impact.

As time goes on, the number of new armed groups entering the conflict continues to increase, bringing with them different political agendas, ideologies and interests. Finding a common base to resolve the crisis will become increasingly difficult the longer this continues, but immediate and inclusive peace talks are paramount to finding consensus.

In the absence of a political solution to the conflict, the humanitarian situation for Yemen’s IDPs is expected to deteriorate further as their prospects of finding ways of ending their displacement remain distant and increasingly elusive as time marches on.