Houthis blocking humanitarian, denounced by WFP

The WFP last December pressed the Houthis to implement a biometric registration system to combat corruption in aid distribution.
Sunday 09/06/2019
Mission impossible? A Yemeni man carries a box containing bottles of cooking oil in the northern province of Hajjah. (AFP)
Mission impossible? A Yemeni man carries a box containing bottles of cooking oil in the northern province of Hajjah. (AFP)

LONDON - More than five years into the conflict in Yemen, international aid agencies are struggling to reach hard-hit areas of the country because of Iran-backed Houthi rebels’ disruptive activity, they warned.

The World Food Programme (WFP) and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), both involved in humanitarian aid efforts in Yemen, released statements claiming the Houthis were hampering their work and putting Yemeni civilians at risk.

In a strong statement, the WFP warned that a dispute with the Houthi militia could disrupt aid distribution in a country already on the brink of famine. Because of fighting, insecurity and interference in its work, the UN agency said it was considering suspending deliveries.

The WFP said, the Houthis have hampered the rollout of a biometric system to identify those in most need. The system, using iris scanning, fingerprints or facial recognition, is used in areas controlled by Yemen’s internationally recognised government.

Sources familiar with the discussions said Houthi leaders asked the agency to stop the registration process in April after realising the system bypasses the supervision of parties associated with the militia in Sana’a.

The Houthis said the process should be run by the Yemeni Social Welfare Fund, an agency in rebel-controlled Sana’a that coordinates with international aid groups.

The WFP last December pressed the Houthis to implement a biometric registration system to combat corruption in aid distribution after it discovered that food donated in Houthi areas was being diverted through a local partner connected with Houthi authorities.

Distribution lists had thumbprints, supposedly from people confirming receipt of food but some 60% of beneficiaries — numbering in the thousands — in seven districts in Sana’a didn’t receive any aid, the WFP said. As well as falsified records, the WFP said unauthorised people were given food and supplies were being sold in markets in the city.

“The continued blocking by some within the Houthi leadership of the biometric registration… is undermining an essential process that would allow us to independently verify that food is reaching… people on the brink of famine,” WFP spokesman Herve Verhoosel said.

Another point of contention between the WFP and Houthi authorities has been 51,000 tonnes of UN wheat — inaccessible since September and at risk of rotting — stored in Yemen’s main port of Hodeidah.

Verhoosel said 8,200 tonnes of wheat was prevented from being unloaded at Hodeidah by Yemeni food quality monitors, even though there was no indication of problems.

He said that, in April, 160 trucks carrying food from Aden to the Houthi-controlled north were detained at checkpoints between government and Houthi territory. They have since been released but another 21 WFP trucks have been detained in Houthi areas.

Other agencies said problems with the humanitarian aid process, such as harassment of staff members, interference with distribution lists and restrictions on the visa process and freedom of movement, have deepened in Houthi areas in recent months.

“We share the frustrations described by the WFP… and we reiterate calls for authorities in Yemen to allow humanitarian agencies to do our jobs,” said NRC Global Advocacy Adviser Suze van Meegen.

In a statement June 5, the NRC described Houthi-imposed restrictions on the movement of goods and staff members as “the biggest hurdles facing humanitarian agencies in Yemen.”

“There are continued restrictions on commercial goods at Hodeidah port, which blocks and delays goods from getting into the country and pushes up the price and availability of food, fuel and medicines,” NRC advocacy manager Sultana Begum said.

Humanitarian supplies can be held at ports and checkpoints for months due to “bureaucratic obstacles,” Begum added.

Hodeidah remains under Houthi control while Yemeni forces aligned with the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi are on its outskirts.

Famine and disease affect large segments of Yemen’s population. Approximately 360,000 children in Yemen are suffering severe acute malnutrition. UN relief chief Mark Lowcock told the UN Security Council in May that the “spectre of famine still looms” with a resurgence of cholera sickening 300,000 Yemenis this year. Almost 12 million people, 40% of Yemen’s population, are at risk of starvation, WFP said.

The WFP is attempting to feed about 12 million of Yemen’s most vulnerable people — nearly half of the population — an effort that costs about $175 million a month.