Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and the EU

, by Konstantina Mirtzani

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Yemen's humanitarian crisis and the EU
View of Yemen’s capital Sana’a, 2010, before the crisis. Credit: Creative Commons

The Yemeni crisis made it to the news once again last week when US President Joe Biden announced an end to US support for Saudi-led offensive operations in Yemen. After six years of conflict, Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Since 2014, the Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthi militias in an exhausting proxy war has left millions of people on the brink of famine. UN agencies claim that approximately 80% of the total population – 24 million out of 30.5 million people - required humanitarian assistance to get through 2020. Since the onset of the crisis, there have been more than 12,000 civilian deaths due to airstrikes, fighting and indiscriminate shelling. However, the actual number is estimated to be far higher as thousands more civilians have died from preventable causes such as malnutrition, disease, and poor health. It is clear that the population of Yemen needs protection and assistance now more than ever, due to the additional risk of COVID-19. Therefore, it is crucial to assess what is being done to cover these needs and what the EU is contributing to this effort.

International response

Despite the indisputably desperate need for humanitarian assistance, the international community has not responded accordingly. Since the beginning, Yemen has been an under-supported crisis, but the situation has recently worsened. As of October 2019, the UN had received $1.3 billion to support Yemen, about 40 percent of what it said it needed for the aid operations it intended to carry out in 2020. That’s a major drop from the $3.6 billion it received in 2019, when it asked for $4.2 billion. Not only is the 2020 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan the worst funded since the conflict escalated in 2015], but it is indicative of an overall drop in funding for the crisis in recent years. These unmet requirements have huge impacts on the ground as programmes and essential services are cut back, halving food assistance to 9 million people, as well as the suspending support to healthcare services. In a June 2020 pledging conference to secure funding for UN-led efforts in Yemen, donor countries expressed unease about giving to an aid operation plagued by obstruction and diversion – at the same time as facing COVID-19-related economic problems. Partly in response to the allegations of obstruction of aid, donor support to UN aid agencies collapsed in June 2020, particularly from Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, which channeled over half of its aid to southern Yemen. To make matters worse, aid workers say the humanitarian community’s response to aid obstacles in Yemen has had numerous shortcomings and may have exacerbated the problem, particularly in the Houthi-controlled parts of the country. The Yemeni government has also imposed onerous bureaucratic requirements on aid agencies that have unnecessarily delayed aid from reaching millions of civilians, in violation of the government’s human rights obligations.

Responses from the European Union

In 2020, the EU was the fifth largest donor to Yemen (after the US, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and Germany), funding 5.6% of the total UN appeal. Since the beginning of the conflict in 2015, the European Union has allocated €896 million to the crisis, including €553 million in humanitarian aid and €318 million in development assistance. The EU’s support includes food assistance, healthcare, and education as well as water, shelter, and improved hygiene services to conflict-affected areas and displaced populations. Given the worrying food security situation in 2020, the EU released over €50 million for food assistance, including cash transfers and nutrition support activities. EU humanitarian aid also funds quick impact projects, repairing and renovating water and sanitation infrastructure to reduce illness and death from waterborne diseases. The EU and the United Nations Development Programme in Yemen (UNDP) have signed a €69.8 million partnership agreement aimed at a three-year initiative known as the Strengthening Institutional and Economic Resilience in Yemen (SIERY). This programme intends to rebuild community trust in the Yemeni state and help redefine the central-to-local relations. SIERY will help scale-up support to the Yemeni governance system to help maintain and ensure citizens have access to a wide range of basic services, that conflict is minimalized, that social cohesion is fostered at community-level, and that there is a sustainable economic recovery process in place for communities.

The European Union also contributed €5 million to UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, to provide emergency relief for displaced persons and life-saving reproductive health and mental health services to the most vulnerable women and girls in Yemen. The funds will allow UNFPA to continue providing critical services at a time when severe funding shortages and the rapid spread of COVID-19 are crippling UNFPA’s humanitarian efforts in the country. More recently, on 12 November 2020, the European Commission, together with Sweden, hosted the second Humanitarian Senior Officials Meeting (SOM) on the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Looking ahead to 2021, donors reaffirmed their full support for the humanitarian organisations who are operating under extremely difficult conditions on the ground. They also highlighted the urgency in mobilising any additional resources.

EU humanitarian values

Despite all this, the European Union and its member states have approached the ongoing conflict in Yemen with a lack of coordination and coherence. The volume of aid Yemen has received from the EU is proof of its low priority to EU leaders. Between 2015 and 2018 Yemen has been allocated €2.33 billion in aid from EU institutions and member countries. During these same four years, Afghanistan and Morocco have received more than €5 billion each from the European Union, the largest global contributor of humanitarian aid. The incapacity of the European Union to implement a comprehensive strategy regarding Yemen damages its soft-power projection in the world. The European Union rhetorically upholds a certain set of values, presumably parts of the image of a certain European identity. These include the defense of human rights, the respect of international regimes — the 2008 EU Common Position and the 2014 Arms Trade Treaty among them — and the responsibility to help alleviate humanitarian crises through aid.

Overall, the EU provides large sums of both humanitarian and development assistance to Yemen, even though they are not enough to cover the unmet funding requirements of the UN appeals and overcome the current funding crisis. These actions assist millions of Yemenis who face acute food insecurity, and support the treatment of severely malnourished children who are at high risk of dying. However, it needs to be stressed that aid alone cannot put Yemen back on its feet. What is needed above all is a nationwide ceasefire, to allow for the resumption of negotiations towards an inclusive political settlement. The EU should develop a coherent strategy that would contribute to that, in addition to the provision of necessary aid.

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