Humanitarian workers in Yemen in the crossfire

Friday 05/02/2016
ICRC delegate visiting a site hit by an air strike in Sanaa

BEIRUT - Humanitarian agencies struggling to assist mil­lions caught up in Yem­en’s civil war face ob­stacles on many fronts: insecurity and attacks on aid work­ers, limitations on access to people in need, restriction of movement and politicisation of humanitarian assistance preventing them from delivering aid impartially, amid widespread poverty and endemic food scarcity.

The international medical or­ganisation Doctors without Borders (MSF) said that in the last three months three of its health facili­ties in Yemen have come under at­tack and an ambulance driver was killed. The International Commit­tee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said two aid workers were killed and another kidnapped and its office in Aden was attacked in what the ICRC said were obvious deliberate acts.

The high risks facing aid workers have disrupted the operations of thousands of local, Arab and inter­national agencies, forcing many to close, suspend operations or func­tion by proxy, relying on local staff, amid exacerbating humanitarian needs.

MSF, the ICRC and UN aid agen­cies are among the few remaining international humanitarian actors in Yemen.

“This latest loss of a colleague is devastating and it demonstrates the ruthlessness with which health care is coming under attack in Yem­en,” said Teresa Sancristoval, emer­gency coordinator at MSF, com­menting on the ambulance attack in which the driver was killed.

“People there are being subjected to this kind of violence on a daily basis. No one, not even health care workers, are being spared,”.

“Ground fighting, air strikes as well as rising criminality have un­doubtedly complicated our work, hampering an efficient humanitar­ian response and restricting field movements,” noted Rima Kamal, the ICRC spokeswoman in Sana’a.

“Over the past six months, the ICRC has suffered from several se­rious security incidents. Securing safety guarantees for the passage of both staff and humanitarian aid is growing increasingly cumbersome with the multiplicity of the parties in the conflict. However, moving without these guarantees can re­sult in deadly consequences and delay much needed humanitarian assistance,” Kamal added via email to The Arab Weekly.

A Tunisian ICRC employee, Nouran Hawas, was kidnapped De­cember 1st in Sana’a, prompting the organisation to suspend staff move­ment. The ICRC has refused to com­ment publicly on the issue, stress­ing, however, that it is working nonstop to secure Hawas’s release.

The conflict pitting government forces backed by Saudi-led coali­tion air strikes against Houthi rebels supported by Iran since last March has devastated Yemen, the poorest country in the region, setting off an acute humanitarian crisis. The United Nations estimates the war has claimed more than 7,000 lives, including 2,700 civilians, and made 21.1 million people — 80% of the population — almost entirely reliant on the international community for food, fuel, shelter and medicine.

Ahmad Karabish, a worker with the UN children’s agency UNICEF in Sana’a, said he sees many of the humanitarian activities funded by Arab and local parties being politi­cally motivated.

“Arab humanitarian agencies were far less efficient than interna­tional organisations, which remain the most specialised in dispensing aid in the field,” Karabish said.

But deliberate attacks targeting international actors have forced many to evacuate their expatriate staff, as others struggle to provide humanitarian assistance and pro­tection to beleaguered populations in Yemen while facing larger chal­lenges involving the protection of their own aid workers, especially national staff members.

“At least 90 international aid workers have left Yemen since the onset of the crisis. We now ask the international organisations to mon­itor closely the movement of their staff and restrict that movement within their premises,” said Ali Shohra from the Ministry of Plan­ning, which is in charge of coordi­nating the work of international organisations operating in Yemen.

“Security threats against aid workers remain imminent and real,” Shohra added.

For the ICRC, striking a careful balance between the risks its mem­bers take and the differences they are able to make in people’s lives is a continuous exercise. A major constraint has been the ability to deliver aid in an impartial manner according to needs, regardless of who benefits from it.

“With the current constraints we are facing, we are unable to deliver on our full potential,” Kamal said. “We are seeing increased attempts whereby the parties seek to influ­ence where and to whom aid is dis­tributed.”

“What we are able to do remains sadly a drop in the ocean and it is very frustrating,” Kamal added.

Frustration has been also strong­ly expressed by MSF.

“Four of our medical facilities have been attacked in four months in Yemen and Afghanistan,” said MSF International President Joanne Liu said in a recent statement.

“Is this the new normal: an MSF hospital bombed every month? We urgently need guarantees from warring parties that functioning hospitals are never a legitimate tar­get.”