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yemen-crisis
Photo by Peter Biro, EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Yemen is currently undergoing the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Upwards of 24 million people — roughly 80% of Yemen’s population—in the country are in need of humanitarian assistance, with the health and sanitation effects of COVID-19 only exacerbating the shortages of basic necessities. The crisis in Yemen, already the poorest country in the North African and Middle East regions, can be traced back to 2011. Arab Spring uprisings led by pro-democracy figures fought against the rule of current Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had been in power for over 30 years and cemented an authoritarian regime in the nation. Saleh was ultimately forced from his position in favor of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, Saleh’s vice president since 1994, who finally claimed the presidential office in 2012. 

What was intended to be a political transition that would alleviate the critical issues that worsened in Yemen during Saleh’s regime — poverty, overpopulation, lack of access to water — only brought further strife, violence, and war. Hadi was met with a network of continued, intertwined issues early on in his tenure; financial instability, food insecurity, and political unrest were rampant. The fragility of Hadi’s office and of the nation allowed for the increasing role and presence of the Houthi movement, an insurgent group that emerged in Yemen in the mid 1990s, associated with Zaydi Shi’a branch of Islam. Zaydis are the most moderate of the Shi’a groups, in closest in proximity to Sunnis in ideology and hold the belief that Ali, Hasan, and Husayn are the first three rightful imams; the imamate is open to whichever of their descendants establish their power through armed rebellion after them.

Houthi rebels initially took part in the 2011 Arab Spring protests, but saw a shift in their motives as they began gaining power. They officially aligned with former president Ali Abdullah Saleh in mid 2015, bolstering them to take control over the majority of Northern Yemen. The year prior, Houthi rebels claimed control of Sana’a, Yemen’s capital and most highly populated city. This period marked the beginning of Yemen’s civil war, and the exacerbation of the country’s already extreme humanitarian crises.

Hadi was forced to resign in January 2015 after Houthi insurgents seized control of the Yemeni presidential palace, but overturned the decision and returned to Aden, the temporary capital of Yemen, that September. Amid the rising power of the Houthis, a coalition of eight majority Sunni Middle Eastern powers led by Saudi Arabia and backed by militaristic and logistical support from the United States, the UK, and France, began air strikes against the rebels in March 2015. Attempts were made by the UN to negotiate peace between Hadi’s government and the Houthi rebels, but a stalemate in the civil war persisted for the past five years. Today, the violence has only escalated between the Saudi Arabian-led coalition and the Houthi insurgents, with missile, drone, and ballistic rocket attacks further contributing to the bloodshed.

Where has this grave civil and political unrest left Yemen’s 28.5 million citizens? Since 2015, the death toll as a result of the civil war surpassed 100,000, with upwards of 3,000,000 people displaced in the process. About 14.3 million people in the country are in need of acute assistance, a number that has risen nearly 30% since 2018. Of the districts in the nation, two-thirds are currently classified as “pre-famine,” and the remaining third are confronted with a heightened overlap of “multiple acute vulnerabilities.” Other environmental factors have compounded the strife and lack of critical, basic resources which have stemmed from Yemen’s political conflict. 

The nation experienced historically unprecedented flooding that began in March and has since affected over 100,000 people — leaving many homeless and unprotected—and a cholera outbreak that emerged in 2017 has since infected almost 2.5 million people in the country. Malnutrition, disease, violence and a severe lack of vital resources leaves the future of Yemen’s citizens hanging in the balance. Women and girls in the nation are disproportionately at risk amid the conflict, with assaults targeted at women rising 63% in 2019, two million children and 1.1 million pregnant women and mothers to new children critically malnourished. 

The Houthi rebels have increasingly imposed regulations on humanitarian aid, impeding the delivery of severely needed resources to the country’s citizens — conditions that are already incredibly dire are only being further intensified. Still, the effort to push for humanitarian-led resources in Yemen must be continued, strengthened, and championed in order to attempt to aid the serious need of millions of people today. The crisis in the country, as millions of people fear for safety and survival since the conflict began intensifying in 2015, persists as the worst in the world. The UN has reported that with increasing urgency, humanitarian support is becoming the only lifeline for tens of millions throughout Yemen. 

As many students find ourselves in uncertain positions amid the rising toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, it remains critically important that we make ourselves aware of these issues confronting other areas of the globe and do whatever is in our power to spread awareness and contribute to aid

ISAMI MCCOWAN is a rising College senior from Durham, N.C. studying English with a concentration in Cinema Studies. Her email address is isami@sas.upenn.edu.  

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