One year on and the war in Yemen continues to kill and maim innocent children, and prevent life-saving aid reaching desperate families.
Yemen was already one of the poorest nations in the Middle East, where life was difficult for children and their families. That’s why we’ve been working there for over 50 years, providing food, access to safe drinking water, and supporting health facilities.
But as a direct consequence of the escalation of armed conflict, in terms of people in need the current humanitarian crisis in Yemen is the largest in the world.
A forgotten crisis
A complex, long-running political crisis in Yemen escalated into this full-scale conflict in March last year. A military operation was launched in support of the Government of Yemen by a Saudi Arabia-led coalition of ten states, against Houthi forces and those loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
Since then, we’ve seen the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance rise to over 80% of the population. This adds up to a staggering 21.2 million people, including almost 10 million children.
The UN recently warned again of potential famine and over 2.7 million people have already fled their homes. But despite the immense levels of suffering, Yemen continues to be among the world’s least known humanitarian crises.
A rising death toll
A blockade on shipping by coalition forces last year effectively cut off supplies of food, fuel and medicine to Yemen. While the blockade has eased recently, stocks remain dangerously low and imports of vital supplies remain well below pre-conflict levels.
Our teams in Yemen also report that delivering aid and commercial goods within the country is constrained by insecurity, bureaucracy and deliberate access restrictions imposed by fighting forces.
All the while, the death toll keeps rising at an alarming rate. As of early March, 856 children have lost their lives already and another 1,249 had been injured. Since the start of the conflict, at least six children have been killed or injured every day. At least 33 children were among 145 civilians killed in two recent airstrikes on crowded market places.
Civilians under attack
There are also regular reports of attacks on schools, hospitals and other vital civilian facilities. Towards the end of last year, we published a report looking at the impact of the use of explosive weapons in populated areas on children and their families. Tragically, Yemen is one of the most dangerous places in the world for explosive weapons. When explosive weapons were used in populated areas in Yemen in 2015, civilians comprised 93% of the casualties.
We have spoken to children like Raja’a* (pictured), aged seven, who told us that she was playing in her garden when a missile hit her home.
“I ran to my mother but the missile hit the building as she was trying to get out with my brother and sister. I saw my mum burning in front of me.
Then, I fell down and later I found myself in the hospital and I was injured. My mum wasn’t beside me as usual. Later, I found out she, my brother and sister had all died. Now I don’t have a house or my family.”
The UK government has a long history of providing support to Yemen and Justine Greening should be credited for her response to the current humanitarian crisis. DFID’s recent financial commitment of £10 million increased the total UK funding committed to the crisis to £85 million, and will provide vital humanitarian assistance to children and their families.
But we are deeply concerned about the UK government’s seeming reluctance to criticise the conduct of war.
As the fourth largest donor to the crisis with a close relationship to Saudi Arabia, the UK is in a position of influence. We would like to see the UK use this influence to push all parties to the conflict to do more to protect children and their families.
First and foremost this means pushing for full compliance with obligations under international law and, additionally, for an end to the ceaseless and devastating use of explosive weapons in populated areas.
Rules of war
There are multiple credible allegations of violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all sides in the conflict. The UN has attributed twice as many civilian casualties to coalition airstrikes than all other forces combined, as well as the greater levels of destruction of civilian infrastructure.
A recent UN report documented 119 incidents in which international humanitarian law was broken by coalition forces, including attacks on camps for internally displaced people and refugees, residential areas, civilian gatherings including weddings, mosques, ports and markets. Even wars have rules, and the international community must speak out and take action when they are broken.
That is why we are calling on the government to condemn breaches of international law, and to support the UN’s recommendation, also echoed by the International Development Select Committee, for the establishment of an international, independent investigation into these allegations.
Peace talks and a ceasefire must be urgently sought, and we welcome the UK government’s efforts in this area. We simply cannot risk another protracted crisis in the Middle East.
But as we wait for the talks to resume, it is unacceptable that children continue to be killed and injured every day in their homes, as they play with friends, or walk to school.
The international community, including our government, must act urgently to prevent further bloodshed and suffering in this ongoing invisible crisis.