Yemen's Refugees: A People Forgotten

Yemen's civil war has waged on and off for over two decades. The conflict, however, is largely unknown to the Western world. In the last year Yemen's refugees have reached approximately 180,000 and over 2 million are displaced within its borders (via UNHCR). While Syria's civil war wages on and her 4 million refugees demand the world's attention, we risk fueling a refugee crisis of equal proportion if we continue to ignore Yemen's plight.

Yemen's History

Yemen is a young country. In 1990 the north and south formed a tenuous union to become the Republic of Yemen. But like their Sudanese neighbors across the Red Sea, their brief history has been fraught with tension and filled with sporadic fighting. I won't spell out the entire history in detail here, as I want to focus on the plight of Yemen's refuges. (For an excellent detailed overview of the conflict, head over to Amnesty International.)

What you need to know is that two groups are at war. One group supports Yemen's former President, and the other supports their current President. Both groups have broken international law, targeted civilians, and committed heinous war crimes. It's a classic case of, no one is really right, everyone is wrong, and anyone who is actually innocent is paying for it.

Yemen's refugees have increased dramatically in the past year, due to the arms and assistance provided by Gulf and Arab Coalition forces to Yemen's ruling government. Saudi-led airstrikes have resulted in more civilian casualties than ever before. And we're contributing to the conflict.

US Involvement

Though you probably weren't aware of it, the US is (albeit indirectly) involved in Yemen's civil war. During a conflict international law prohibits attacks on civilians and their homes, as well as attacks on medical facilities. And yet, the US (along with the UK, France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands) has reported authorized arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth more than $25bn last year (via Amnesty). Ignoring Yemen's conflict in our media, government aid, and foreign policy while we equip coalition forces to target civilians is the proverbial nail in Yemen's coffin.

Yemen's Refugees

Yemen, a country that now creates refugees, was once a celebrated safe haven for refugees. Though they are the poorest Gulf state, they are also the only signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Their welcome of refugees has not been perfect by any means, especially since it has been punctuated by their own civil war(s). Yet, they have offered what sanctuary they could when their wealthy neighbors have offered nothing. Now, in their own hour of need, we have forgotten Yemen's refugees.

Of approximately 180,000 forced to leave the country, most have fled to Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Somalia. In Oman and Saudi Arabia Yemen's refugees have no right to protection since those states are not parties to the 1951 Convention. However, their options are limited due to Yemen's geographical location. Crossing by sea to the African continent is dangerous, and so the safest option is to set out into the desert and cross borders into countries that do not recognize their refugee status and often exploit their vulnerability. Somali nationals who resettled in Yemen during Somalia's civil war in the 1990's have been the most likely population to flee across the Gulf and return to their homeland (via UNHCR).

Yemen's Needs

Due to the ongoing and continually escalating conflict, 83% of Yemen's residents require some form of humanitarian aid to survive. However, most of them are not receiving the aid they so desperately need. Taizz is one city that was caught in the midst of intense fighting and was cut off from aid for five months beginning in late 2015 (via UNHCR). The conflict is only spreading to affect more villages, towns, and cities.

Yemen's refugees and internally displaced civilians need humanitarian aid badly. Yemen's government and rebels need to agree to peace talks. Yemen's allies need to stop supplying weapons to Coalition forces who are increasingly using them to target civilians. But in order to meet any of these pressing needs, the world has to know about Yemen. More than anything else, Yemen, and her suffering people, need publicity. They need an Alan Kurdi or an Omran Dagneesh to wake the rest of us up to their plight. I do not wish it upon any child to become the face of Yemen's crisis, but what else will get our attention, if only for a few minutes?

Further Reading

Interested in learning more? Check out these articles.

Amnesty International's excellent and thorough overview of Yemen's conflict.

A few of Yemen's refugees make it to Europe. Find out what they face when they get there.

Some more theories about why the world doesn't seem to care about Yemen.