Yemen + 2 more

Regular press briefing by the Information Service, 10 April 2015 - Yemen

Johannes Van Der Klaauw, the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen and United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) representative, said the humanitarian situation in Yemen was getting worse by the hour. Today 15 out of the 22 governorates in the country were affected by conflict. Millions of people were at risk of physical injury or death due to ongoing fighting on the ground and airstrikes, but also because of the quick unravelling of anything there was left of basic services including health care, safe water and availability of food.

As the United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Mr. van der Klaauw said he called on all parties to the conflict to ensure that civilians and the civilian infrastructure was protected. That infrastructure was indispensable for the survival of the people. He also called on all parties to the conflict to allow humanitarian organisations and their personnel to deliver assistance to the most vulnerable Yemeni people and to facilitate humanitarian staff and supplies to reach the country, by air and by boat. Aid workers must be able to deliver life-saving assistance in all affected areas in Yemen. The Humanitarian Coordinator said he called again this morning on all parties to enact an immediate humanitarian pause in the conflict.

The Humanitarian Coordinator said the current conflict in Yemen took place against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis of a protracted nature and of a size and a complexity which was amongst the largest in the world. Even before the latest escalation of the conflict, 16 million of the 25 million Yemenis required humanitarian assistance to meet their most basic needs. The conflict was aggravating the needs of the most vulnerable and putting others at grave risk. Ordinary Yemeni families were struggling to access health care, water, food and fuel – commodities that were basic requirements for their survival. Thousands of Yemeni families had fled as a result of the fighting, and we were now seeing the regional dimension of the flows out of Yemen into Djibouti and the autonomous parts of Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, said the Humanitarian Coordinator.

Civilian infrastructure, including schools, health facilities, markets, power plants and warehouses had been damaged and disrupted by the fighting. Food and fuel shortages were now being reported across the country and as a result, prices for food and commodities had increased significantly. Frequent power cuts were being experiences across the country along with shortages of water and fuel. In Aden, Yemen’s second city, one million people risked being cut off from access to clean drinking water within a matter of days unless additional fuel was brought in. Health facilities were also under great strain: they lacked fuel for the generators and water necessary to maintain basic operations, said the Humanitarian Coordinator, adding that there was an urgent need for support to mass casualty management, including trauma kits and other medical supplies.

The humanitarian community was on the ground in Yemen. It was doing its utmost to deliver life-saving assistance and protection services, to the greatest extent possible, through its national United Nations staff and the national staff of international non-governmental organizations, as well as through a strong network of national community-based non-governmental organizations. Humanitarian partners had provided medical supplies and trauma kits for 18 hospitals throughout Yemen, among other assistance.

Yemeni national staff of the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations were delivering life-saving assistance and protection to people in need across the country at great personal risk. Three Yemeni aid workers of the Yemeni Red Crescent were recently killed in crossfire in Aden while trying to save the lives of others. The current impact of the fighting on civilians, including aid workers, was simply unacceptable, said the Humanitarian Coordinator.

Ahmed Shadoul, World Health Organization (WHO) representative in Yemen, briefed journalists via the telephone from Jordan. He said that the situation in Yemen was critical, particularly in Aden. Major concerns included the air strikes, the internally displaced people, malnutrition and disease outbreaks due to crowded places such as meningitis, typhoid and measles. The latest figures regarding fatalities and injuries were released by the Ministry of Health’s Operation Room on Thursday 9 April and stated that 648 people had been killed and 2,191 people had been injured.

Health facilities, medical clinics and ambulances had been targeted and suffered damage from airstrikes. WHO appealed for the need to keep health facilities safe. There was a shortage of medical equipment and teams, and those already on the ground had been very stretched over the last three weeks. WHO was doing its best to provide more than 20 hospitals with necessary supplies and equipment but the fuel shortages were a major problem.

WHO, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) were spearheading the mass casualty management and responding to the injuries, supporting the Ministry of Health and other partners, said Dr. Shadoul, and WHO was coordinating the health cluster response to fill the gap. WHO had so far donated 20 trauma kits to hospitals which were sufficient for 1,000 major operations and inter-agency health kits sufficient for the needs of 240,000 people for one month. WHO had activated the shock room in its regional office in Cairo to provide necessary surge and capacity building. Ensuring the continuation of basis services was problematic due to power cuts across the country. WHO was very concerned about the safety of the country vaccines for the whole year.

Adrian Edwards, for the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said with the escalation in Yemen’s conflict, UNHCR was seeing a rise in people fleeing by boat across the Gulf of Aden to countries in the Horn of Africa – historically a major route travelled by refugees and migrants headed in the opposite direction, i.e. to Yemen. Over the last 10 days 317 Yemeni refugees had arrived at Obock in Djibouti. In Somalia’s Puntland, at Bossaso port, and Somaliland, at Berbera and Lughaya ports (around 200 km west of Berbera), there had been 582 arrivals, the vast majority Somalis but also Yemenis and a small number of Ethiopian and Djiboutian nationals. They all received food and water, and health and medical checks on arrival.

The refugees told UNHCR staff that many more people were trying to leave Yemen but were being prevented from doing so by fuel shortages and high fees charged by boat operators. Ports were said to be closed and boats not allowed to depart. A Somali man who was separated from his wife and daughter while fleeing bombing in Basatin district, in Aden city said he had been in hiding for three days in the port before managing to board a boat to safety. Among those with him on the 24-hour boat journey were an Ethiopian woman, recognized as a refugee in Yemen in 2002, and her three children. She said she did not have to wait as smugglers prioritized women and children, but that her husband was still waiting in Aden for a place on a boat.

UNHCR was extremely concerned about the dangers for anyone trying to flee across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, where there were no search and rescue operations. Last year, 246 lives were reported lost in sea crossings to Yemen. UNHCR appealed to all ships in the area to be extra vigilant and assist any boats in distress. It also asked that countries with vessels in waters near Yemen – including surveillance and anti-piracy vessels – instruct their ships to help with rescues. As demand increased, boats were likely to become more crowded and prices for places more expensive.

In Djibouti, newly arriving refugees were being registered at the Al-Rahma temporary transit centre near Obock, where they receive food, water, medical care and other assistance. The authorities had identified a site for a refugee camp four kilometres away at Markazi. Djibouti was already home to nearly 15,000 refugees, the majority from Somalia. Most lived in two refugee camps in the south of the country. UNHCR was making contingency plans to be able to receive up to 30,000 refugees in Djibouti over the next six months.

In Somaliland and Puntland, Somalia, UNHCR was refurbishing two buildings to serve as reception and transit centres for refugees from Yemen and Somalis who may return home because of the crisis. UNHCR and partners had started preparations to be able to receive up to 100,000 people, also over six months.

Inside Yemen UNHCR’s operations to protect and assist the 250,000 refugees continued where possible. That number included mostly Somalis with smaller numbers of Eritreans, Ethiopians, Iraqis and Syrians, the 330,000 Yemenis displaced by previous waves of violence, and the thousands more affected by the violence of the last two weeks. The main difficulties for UNHCR’s 115 national staff and non-governmental organization partners were the security situation and fuel shortages. At the Al Kharaz camp in Yemen’s south, food distribution and medical care continued. The camp was home to some 18,000 Somali refugees, and the primary school remained open. UNHCR saw an increase in refugees moving from urban areas to the camp, and was providing them with shelter and other aid. It also continued to do outreach to vulnerable refugees, including counselling by phone and email where offices were unable to open.

Even with the rising outflow to the Horn of Africa, UNHCR partner the Yemeni Red Crescent, was registering hundreds of asylums-seekers who continued to arrive on Yemen’s shores. Those desperate people, mostly Somalis and Ethiopians, were either unaware of the situation or in the hands of smugglers and unable to escape their journeys. UNHCR had moved its field office in the port of Bab Al Mandab, a traditional arrival point, to the Kharaz camp where its reception centre was functioning. Mr. Edwards highlighted that despite the desperate situation in that part of the world there had been more sea crossings to Yemen in the first three months of the year than seen in the Mediterranean – there had been 20,000 crossings to Yemen versus 15,000 crossings of the Mediterranean.

UNHCR field teams in conflict-affected Sana’a and Sa’ada, in the northwest, said some people had not been able to flee to safer parts because they simply had no money. Throughout conflict-affected areas, fuel and food shortages meant prices were very high. With 14 out of Yemen’s 22 governorates affected by air strikes or armed conflict, UNHCR yesterday issued a position paper to governments calling on all countries to allow civilians fleeing Yemen access to their territories and urging governments around the world to suspend forcible returns to the country, said Mr. Edwards.

Joel Millman, for the International Organization of Migration (IOM), said IOM continued to wait for landing clearance for evacuation flights, which was a core mission for the organization. Having hoped to get clearance for the flights this week, IOM had now been informed that the earliest possible day would be Monday 16 April. IOM had heard from 38 Governments requesting advice or assistance in evacuating their nations, and it had identified 13,000 nationals to evacuate if it could get clearance at Sana’a airport. To put that figure into context Mr. Millman said IOM knew there were 250,000 Somalis and 100,000 Ethiopians in Yemen, so 13,000 was a small number compared to how large the evacuation could potentially be.

Christophe Boulierac, for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), informed the press that UNICEF’s first airlift of urgent medical and other supplies landed in Sana’a this morning and was now being unloaded on the tarmac at Sana’a International Airport. The 16 tonnes of medical equipment and water supplies that were now being unloaded would be made available to organizations working on the ground in Yemen to help save innocent lives. The cargo of antibiotics, bandages, syringes and other medical supplies, as well as water storage materials, was airlifted through Djibouti from the UNICEF supply centre in Denmark.

The conflict in Yemen continued to exact a heavy toll on children and their families. The humanitarian situation was worsening all the time. Thousands of families across the country had left their homes in search of safer places and hospitals were under increasing pressure as they struggled to manage mass casualties with insufficient supplies. The supplies brought in today could make the difference between life and death for children and their families, said Mr. Boulierac, but they were not enough and UNICEF planned more airlifts.

On behalf of the spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), Ms. Momal-Vanian read out a statement in which WFP said the worsening conflict in parts of Yemen threatened the country’s already fragile food security. WFP was concerned about the growing number of displaced civilians in the poorest country in the Arab world. Food and fuel shortages could push even more people into hunger in a country where more than 10 million people – some 41 per cent of the population – were already suffering from food insecurity. WFP continued to work where it could through its 185 national staff as well as non-governmental organization partners and was seeking more partners to help operations to scale up to reach those most in need with assistance where security permitted. Despite operational and security difficulties, WFP and its partners distributed food assistance last week to nearly 30,000 in the Mazraq camps for internally displaced people and Kharaz camp for refugees.

Responding to a question, Dr. Shadoul said WHO could not be sure how many of the 648 deaths were due to airstrikes and how many were due to other issues. The true number of fatalities and injuries were likely to be higher. He also noted that the WHO planned an airlift of supplies to Sana’a on Monday 13 April, and that it had sent trauma kits sufficient for 10,000 people for three months to Djibouti.

The United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Mr. van der Klaauw, responding to a question about what a humanitarian pause would entail, said a pause was needed to allow aid to come into the country by air or boat. UNHCR was cooperating with the coalition forces who had set up a cell for the coordination of humanitarian aid – as ICRC, MSF and UNICEF colleagues could testify because their first flights had been allowed to land. Many more flights and boats were needed, and in order to coordinate incoming aid effectively a mechanism had to be set up, and for that space – a pause – was needed. The windows of cleared air space in which aid flights could land were very short: 90 minutes to land a plane, unload it and get it out, was just too short, he said, adding that the airspace had to be clear to allow flights to land.

Mr. van der Klaauw said as the Humanitarian Coordinator he emphasized that a political solution to the conflict was needed. He cited the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Thursday that humanitarians could bring in aid and help to alleviate the suffering of the people and the consequences of the conflict, but the conflict could not be resolved through humanitarian means.

A journalist asked whether the UN was calling on the Saudis to end their airstrikes. Mr. van der Klaauw responded that he was calling for four things: first, respect for the lives of the people and the civilian infrastructure; second for parties to the conflict to allow aid workers and humanitarian organizations to be present in the country and have space to work and transport aid; third, for a humanitarian pause coupled with the parties sitting at the negotiating table; and fourth, respect for international humanitarian law.

Responding for a question on the blockade, and whether, if it was hindering humanitarian aid going into Yemen, it was a violation of international humanitarian law, Mr. van der Klaauw said he could not comment on the blockade but he reiterated that the coalition forces wished to coordinate with the humanitarian community on the delivery of aid and to enable a space to bring in aid by air and boat. The UN was actively working with the coalition forces to make that happen. It was not a matter of a blockade but of extremely complex negotiations among the multitude of actors including the coalition forces, the Yemeni Government on the ground, and the rebel forces.

Asked who currently controlled Aden airport and port, Mr. van der Klaauw said the control of Aden airport and port had shifted over recent weeks and it was unclear who was currently in charge. Aden was the second city of Yemen and the situation there may be catastrophic, he said. It was urban warfare between different militias who were engaged in a sort of vendetta war, because youngsters had been armed by all sorts of groups. The fragmentation of the situation in Aden and the lawlessness was of great concern, he said, as was the risk of a security and governance vacuum there. There was a risk that the ability of the Yemeni society, which was a tribal society, to reconcile and talk together would be gone. What was happening today was without precedence in the modern history of Yemen, he concluded.