There is no lull in the fierce fighting between the government troops and Al Houti forces in Sa'ada province in northern Yemen as the conflict enters the sixth month. Thousands of Yemeni civilians continue to flee to neighbouring provinces, desperately seeking safety, shelter and assistance. These newly displaced people bring stories of intense clashes in Razeh, Saqain and Sahar districts and report dozens of civilian casualties as a result of air strikes and heavy fighting. UNHCR is not present in the conflict area and has no independent confirmation of these reports.
We now estimate that some 200,000 people have been affected by the conflict in Yemen since 2004, including those displaced by the latest escalation which erupted in early August last year.
The internally displaced people (IDPs) now arriving to Hajjah and Amran governorates travelled by whatever means available. Many made the long and tiring journey to the IDP camps in Hajjah province on foot while others remain trapped in the conflict area.
The latest influx is straining already stretched shelter capacity and quickly depleting aid resources in the area. Overcrowding at Al Mazrak 1 camp in Hajjah province is a major concern for UNHCR as the camp now hosts over 21,000 people - more than double of its original capacity. The second camp, funded by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is quickly filling up. The third camp at Al Mazrak has the planned capacity of 1,200 families (9,400 people) with possibility of further extension. The first 50 families are scheduled to move there the day after tomorrow (i.e. Thursday, 14 January).
The number of IDPs outside the camps is also growing rapidly. There are now huge makeshift sites along the roads close to the Al Mazrak camps. Shelling can be clearly heard in this area and it is a constant reminder of the ongoing conflict in the north.
Following the government's request last week for a fourth camp, a UNHCR site planner is currently working with the local authorities on the identification of a suitable location.
UNHCR welcomes the announcement of the Organisation of Islamic Conference that it will build a hospital, attached to Al Mazrak 3 camp, with an inpatient department, X-ray and surgical room as well as a school. The hospital with 20 beds will be serving IDPs in all three existing camps and the local population.
The shelter situation is equally dire in Amran province where most of the arriving IDPs are staying with host families or renting. Over the New Year's week alone, more than 5,000 new IDPs arrived to Amran City. The acute lack of shelter and accommodation is creating tensions between the displaced and the local population. In the absence of an immediate and feasible camp option, UNHCR is planning to set up a transit centre in Amran as an interim and temporary solution.
Meanwhile, a UNHCR assessment mission from Saudi Arabia visited the IDPs scattered in Mandaba area in Baqim district, far north of the volatile Sa'ada province, during the last week of December. Some 240 families (approximately 1,700 people) arrived there from Sa'ada City and surrounding areas during December, joining another 10,000 IDPs some of whom had been sheltering there in a makeshift site since September 2009.
Most of these new arrivals are living with relatives and friends. They have not yet received any assistance as no aid was able to reach Mandaba since the beginning of the Saudi engagement in mid-November. Shipments of cooking gas have also stopped and as a result the prices sky rocketed. Consequently, IDPs now rely on collecting wood and cutting trees in the nearby mountains. According to our mission team the newly arrived IDPs were extremely exhausted. Some of them spoke about heavy aerial bombardment, mentioning large number of casualties in and around Sa'ada City.
Due to the intense fighting in Sa'ada province another 500 families from this part of Yemen arrived to Sa'ana joining some 11,000 vulnerable IDPs already in the Yemeni capital. Together with the government and other partners UNHCR is distributing aid and the exercise will continue over the coming days and weeks to reach the population in need.
UNHCR is calling on donor countries to continue their support to our operation in Yemen to be able to cope with the situation and to provide protection and much needed assistance.