Refugees International welcomes President Trump’s statement this week that U.S. officials will urge Saudi Arabia to lift its humanitarian blockade of Yemen. However, the blockade still remains in place, and the President’s words must be turned into immediate action. Millions of lives are at stake, and lifting the blockade must be coupled with a longer term commitment from the United States to ensure ongoing and generous humanitarian assistance in Yemen.
The 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO) for Yemen, and its related appeal for funds to implement the Humanitarian Response Plan (HRP) to meet those needs, were first issued in November 2016 and January 2017 respectively. These plans requested $2.3 billion to help 12 million Yemeni civilians throughout the year. Now in December, just over half the necessary funds have come through, and humanitarian conditions in Yemen are considerably worse than originally predicted. A cholera epidemic, the destruction of much of the country’s healthcare system, and a food shortages that creep ever closer to famine have all contributed to a devastating crisis that exceeds expectations.
Now, the 2018 HNO has been released, and it is not a hopeful picture. The assessment estimates that more than22 million people in Yemen need humanitarian aid—11 million of them urgently. A financial appeal to meet humanitarian needs has not yet been launched, but it seems safe to say that the number will again be in the billions. What might be different in 2018 that would support a better response to millions of desperate Yemenis?
President Trump’s statement directing U.S. officials to immediately speak with Saudi Arabia about allowing humanitarian relief into Yemen was a welcome gesture, but there is little public evidence that the President’s words have translated into action on the ground. We look forward to strong Trump Administration action on this issue and the actual lifting of the blockade. Multiple restrictions on humanitarian aid entering Yemen have been in place to varying degrees since early 2015. Removing them has been a key objective of Refugees International and many members of Congress for months.
While much has been said and written about the Saudi blockade of Yemen’s ports, the humanitarian crisis existed even before that obstacle reached its current proportions. For two years, aid agencies have told how rising food prices and the lack of access to basic goods for the average Yemeni were creating a disaster that eventually would exceed their ability to address it adequately. Growing insecurity in 2016 and 2017 contributed to the challenge of delivering humanitarian assistance, even as conflict and failing social service systems left more and more people in need.
Lifting the blockade is unquestionably a crucial, urgent step in helping Yemenis survive; there is simply no leeway for the fighting parties to wait any longer to make this happen—it is already two years too late. But it must happen in tandem with a commitment from both the government and its supporters, and the opposition, to allow and facilitate humanitarian assistance country-wide. This will require permanent, long-term access for humanitarians to all parts of Yemen, and commitments from donors to fund their lifesaving work consistently and predictably.
Nothing will be a substitute for a political solution to the crisis in Yemen, but allowing humanitarian aid to flow will lessen the suffering of millions until that solution is reached.
Eric Schwartz is the president of Refugees International and is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration.