The most ignored humanitarian catastrophe – Yemen
EcoPol Journal / 27 January 2021
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Master in Management Class of 2020
Tatjana is a Master in Management student from Serbia. Before joining FS, she graduated in Political Science and International Relations. Member of EcoPol International Division.

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Never before have Yemenis faced so little support from the international community – or so many simultaneous threats. The crisis in Yemen, caused by prolonged conflict, has led to staggering impacts on human life, basic public services, and the economy. Yemen was already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East and the war has pushed an already struggling population to the brink of famine.

How did the war even start?

Following the Arab Spring, a series of anti-government uprisings in the Middle East in 2011, Yemeni President Saleh was forced to hand over power to his deputy, President Hadi. However, the transition of power failed since many protesters were not happy with the new government as it still consisted of the same elites, so the violence continued.  The UN-sponsored national dialogue was established to address the future of the country, but tensions flared again when a proposal was made to divide Yemen into six federal regions. The southern separatist movement and the northern Houthi movement considered such a proposal an undermining of their distinct interests.

President Hadi’s government wasn’t able to maintain order and terrorist groups like Al Quaida and Daesh took advantage of political instability across the country. At the same time, Houthi rebels were also making territorial gains but lacked military power. Knowing that former President Saleh still had military forces loyal to him, Houthis began colluding with Saleh.

How did it become an international conflict?

In 2015 Houthis took control of the capital Sana’a and started advancing towards the port city of Aden, the capital of the South where President Hadi was located. Houthis soon developed a partnership with Iran and rumors of more Iran-Houthi cooperation spread quickly. This was seen as an immediate threat by Saudi Arabia who feared that its sworn enemy, Iran, could gain a foothold on their border. Saudi Arabia started an alliance and began a military campaign hoping to restore President Hadi’s government. They have created land, sea, and air blockade and launched a campaign of relentless airstrikes. Many human rights organizations report that the airstrikes are indiscriminate, meaning that they have targeted civilian objects such as schools and hospitals.

The conflict continues to complicate as different actors pursue their own agendas. The USA provides weapons and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition. While the United Arab Emirates is part of the coalition, it is believed UAE is supporting the southern separatist movement in efforts to maintain a strategic foothold in the south where most ports are located. All of this transformed a domestic conflict into an international proxy war.

What is the scale of Yemen’s humanitarian catastrophe?

In this war, it is not just the fighting that causes suffering. Saudi Arabia’s blockade of the country has made it almost impossible for humanitarian supplies to get in. In a country of 29 million people, 24 million depend on some kind of humanitarian aid – that is almost a third of the population of Germany.

The disruptions to Yemen’s infrastructure have created the worst outbreak of cholera ever recorded since sewage systems have failed and the population has no access to clean water. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the number of preventable deaths.

And while some may think that things cannot get much worse, the biggest issue Yemenis are facing is the famine which is killing a child every 10 minutes. Parents usually don’t eat for days themselves, and water is often the only thing they can give to their children. The starvation has reached the point in which food is being used as a tool by different groups to recruit new fighters.

Why is the Yemeni war so neglected in the media?

The tragedy is that, although the conflict has been magnified, the political attention to it has not. In fact, the striking feature is that in most parts of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis is getting very little attention at all.

Even when the conflict is covered, news outlets tend to focus on the proxy war narrative which overlooks the country’s worsening humanitarian crisis. And while both Iraq and Syria are equally dangerous places for journalists, they receive much more media coverage. Yemeni activists and journalists point out that the reason might be the fact that many of the people attempting to get to Europe are from Syria and Iraq, so western news audiences are more affected by what’s happening in those countries than what’s happening in Yemen.

But amidst all the reasoning, the facts remain. Atrocities are still being committed against civilians on a daily basis and a humanitarian crisis is worsening. People suffering in faraway places doesn’t make the rest of the world immune from it.

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Sharma, Gouri. “Yemen Conflict All but Ignored by the West.” Deutsche Welle, January 17, 2017.

Mitreski, Aleksandar. Rep. Civil War in Yemen: A Complex Conflict with Multiple Futures. Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies., August 2015.

Laub, Zachary, and Kali Robinson. “Yemen in Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations, July 29, 2020.

“Crisis in Yemen: Unrelenting Conflict and Risk of Famine.” International Rescue Committee (IRC). December 16, 2020.