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Yemen's Displaced: The Past, Present, and Unknown Future

By Maria Mitri

The current humanitarian crisis in Yemen has garnered global recognition for its seemingly endless conflict and the extent of the civilian impact. As of 2020, the country’s sixth consecutive year of violence, there were 3,858,000 civilians internally displaced by violent conflict and disasters. This number is astonishing and requires a greater understanding of the drivers of displacement in Yemen so that a solution can be found and the affected civilians are able to find safety and refuge.


The years of violence began during the Arab Spring when the Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced out of office. Yemen was just one of many countries in the Arab world to experience political unrest, instability, and violence during this time. This instability led to the displacement of an estimated 175,000 Yemeni civilians, with the new transitional government in the following years coming up short in efforts to stabilize Yemen’s political sphere.


As of 2020, nearly 80% of civilians in Yemen were in need of aid and greater than 3.6 million people were internally displaced.

In Northern Yemen, a political and armed Shia group known as the Houthi movement came to power and bore influence across the entire country. The Houthis, formally known as Ansar Allah, seized control of the capital of Yemen, Sana'a, in September 2014 as the violence between groups continued.


In 2015, the Houthis continued to press their sphere of influence further and further south, a sign of what many believed was the climax of the conflict. Taking action against the growing threat posed by the Houthi movement, a group of Arab states following the lead of Saudi Arabia began their own military campaign in defense of the government, marking the beginning of a new phase in the war.


In their defense of the government, the Arab coalition engaged in extensive military action that resulted in the widespread destruction of civilian housing and infrastructure. Divisions were further amplified in 2020 when Southern states in Yemen who had previously supported the new government under the former vice president declared their own rule. This led to renewed violence and conflict in places that had previously been safe, like Abyan and Marib, the latter being the last region of government control in the north and a highly popular refuge for internally displaced persons. The increased occurrence of violence in Yemen during this time led to the evacuation of 23 displacement sites and countless civilians being consequentially displaced more than once, per IDMC.


Typical locations pursued by displaced civilians in Yemen were concentrated in the North, specifically the Sa’ada governorate, but by 2015 there was displacement reported in every region in Yemen. After the Marib and Al Jawf regions found themselves generally spared by the conflict, they became popular destinations for people displaced in Yemen. By the end of 2019, almost one million internally displaced persons lived in either region. In 2016, as a result of a brief period of stability in the conflict, the number of displaced persons greatly diminished and over a million civilians were believed to have returned to their homes.


However, just one year later the country experienced increased numbers of displacement again, mostly localized in the western part of the country in regions like Hodeida.

The other great threat faced by Yemen is flooding -- affecting nearly every region in Yemen. As of 2020, nearly 80% of civilians in Yemen were in need of aid and greater than 3.6 million people were internally displaced. According to the Sana'a Center, flooding only exacerbates this, wearing away at the already weak infrastructure, and diminishes Yemen’s GDP. Following a series of floods in 2008, Yemen’s GDP decreased by 6%.


The increased urgency and intensity of climate change has also led to increased occurrences of flash floods and cyclones, especially in typically dry areas like Hadramawt, Al-Mahra, Shabwa, and Marib. Yemen is highly vulnerable to climate change and is recognized as one of the countries least equipped to combat climate change, per the Sana'a Center. Deployment of aid usually included local NGOs and deployed volunteers with provisions of hygiene kits, food baskets, and shelters. This, however, was paused in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the deployment of aid has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels.


The governmental department responsible for disaster management and response, the Civil Defense Authority, is ill-equipped to handle the severity of the floods and has experienced looting and attacks from the Houthis. The lack of infrastructure and funding combined with the attacks on the organization have left it with minimal funds and just a few emergency vehicles.


Compounding on the harsh impacts of the flooding is the fact that disorganized urban planning and development, including the construction of houses directly on flood valleys, affected the path of floodwaters. The floods devastated Al-Mahra and Marib in particular, as Marib houses 18 3,500 IDP shelters and the largest displacement site known as Al-Jufaina . The internally displaced people already living in these make-shift shelters and camps were displaced yet again by these severe floods.


To this day, more than 20 million people are affected by the humanitarian crisis and almost 5 million Yemeni civilians are on the brink of famine. An estimated 2/3 of the population actively relies on humanitarian aid that has been halted or greatly diminished due to COVID-19, per IOM. The growing threat of famine combined with the relentlessness of the COVID-19 pandemic, the threat of non state armed groups, and the instability of the government make it clear that this crisis will not end without international intervention.


When crises persist and continue over time, it is not an invitation for countries with power and wealth to give up. It is crucial that we maintain a humanitarian presence in Yemen and do not give up on what will surely become a more dire situation for innocent civilians who are already extremely vulnerable.


Cover photo: WFP food distibution in Raymah, by Julian Harneis, licensed under CC by 2.0

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