Spotlight on Yemen's Forgotten War and Humanitarian Disaster: Preventing the Next Syrian Refugee Crisis

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CIGI Paper No. 97


Yemen’s humanitarian situation is arguably the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and the world is looking the other way. The United Nations reports that Yemen has more people — 21.2 million — in need of humanitarian aid than any other country including Syria. Yemen is in the midst of a civil war and reports of human rights violations are frequent. Millions are on the brink of famine, the country’s health system has collapsed and thousands of civilians have been killed or injured by fighting.

The number of refugees is steadily rising and Yemen is seriously in risk of becoming the next Syrian refugee crisis. Over 173,180 people have already left the country. Over 82,300 have fled the short distance to Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti and other countries in the Horn of Africa. Ironically, these countries have been struggling with their own crises and have generated hundreds of thousands of refugees of their own. Those fleeing Yemen are interested in seeking asylum in Europe and the West. Yemeni refugees are in close proximity to established migration routes that travel through Africa, across the Mediterranean and into Europe. In Yemen, over 2.5 million civilians have been displaced after a year of civil war, suggesting a potential refugee pool of millions as the crisis carries on.

With Yemen, the past is poised to repeat itself unless the world takes notice. Serious worldwide discussions on how to mitigate the current refugee problem did not take place until refugees began pouring across Europe’s borders. If this occurs with Yemen, Europe — as has been the case with the current crisis — will undoubtedly look to the rest of the world, including the United States and Canada, to share in this new refugee burden. Surges in refugee numbers will compound domestic concerns about security, extremism, radicalization and humanitarian obligations, while also exacerbating bilateral and multilateral tensions.

International attention and aid funding is desperately needed and could be critical to helping forestall a Yemeni refugee crisis before it begins. However, the crisis in Yemen has been largely under-reported and overshadowed by other conflicts such as Syria. International donors in 2015 provided only half of the estimated US$1.6 billion dollars that the United Nations requested for Yemen (UN Office for the Coordination Humanitarian Affairs [UNOCHA] 2015f), and the window for preventative action is closing. The global community has spent billions reacting to the Syrian refugee crisis. Unless donors act now to address the severity of Yemen’s humanitarian crisis, the cost — both human and financial — will soar much higher.

An independent, impartial inquiry into alleged human rights violations by all parties in the conflict provides another opportunity to address Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe. International support for UN-initiated peace talks — to include pressure on Saudi Arabia and Iran, who are both active players in the Yemen conflict — is equally essential to mitigating Yemen’s humanitarian disaster, ending the conflict, and ensuring that Yemen’s displaced citizens can ultimately return home.