CAIRO — Hundreds of thousands of Yemeni children languishing in refugee camps and remote villages are nearing starvation. Families who fled airstrikes are being forced to return to war-shattered homes, risking their lives again.
The United Nations and other humanitarian groups are describing alarming scenes in the Middle East’s poorest country as a humanitarian crisis and conflict deepen after nearly two years of war.
In recent weeks, clashes between rebels known as Houthis and forces loyal to the U.S.-backed government have intensified, especially along the western coast of the country. Airstrikes near a major port in the city of Hodeida — the main entry point for food, medicine and humanitarian aid into northern Yemen — have slowed the delivery of supplies and exacerbated the misery.
Almost a half million children are severely acutely malnourished, a nearly 200 percent increase since 2014, the United Nations Children’s Fund said this week. The United Nations described Yemen, along with Somalia and northern Nigeria, as “on the brink of famine,” and declared that famine has already gripped parts of South Sudan. In Yemen, more than 7.3 million people are in need of urgent food assistance.
More than 1 million Yemenis have returned to their homes even as fighting still rages in many of those areas, the U.N. refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration reported.
“I am deeply concerned with the escalation of conflict and militarization of Yemen’s Western Coast,” Jamie McGoldrick, the top U.N. humanitarian official for Yemen, said in a rare, impassioned plea for assistance this week. “It is coming at a great cost to civilians.”
Yemen’s growing crisis is likely to pose new challenges for the Trump administration as it seeks to neutralize a potent al-Qaeda branch known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The group took advantage of the chaos that followed Yemen’s Arab Spring revolts to seize large swaths of territory and has expanded its reach since then.
The group’s strength was evident as its militants engaged in a fierce firefight with U.S. forces that staged a raid on a remote village controlled by al-Qaeda in Bayda province last month.
By the end of the assault, a Navy SEAL was dead and three other American troops were wounded. The Trump administration hailed its first counterterrorism operation as a victory, but regional analysts said it could help build support for AQAP, which is better funded and equipped than at any point in its history.
AQAP and a nascent Islamic State affiliate in Yemen “are now actively exploiting the changing political environment and governance vacuums to recruit new members and stage new attacks and are laying the foundation for terrorist networks that may last for years,” U.N. investigators wrote in a report released last month.
The desperation among ordinary Yemenis is growing. The lack of employment and basic services are forcing hundreds of thousands to return to their homes, according to a report by UNHCR and IOM released this week.
“It’s a testament to how catastrophic the situation in Yemen has become, that those displaced by the conflict are now returning home because life in the areas to which they had fled for safety is just as abysmal as in the areas from which they fled,” Ayman Gharaibeh, UNCHR’s Yemen representative, said in a statement.
Many of the displaced have returned to homes in Aden, where AQAP and the Islamic State routinely stage suicide bombings, and to Taiz, a key front line of the war where snipers and shelling regularly kill civilians on the streets. U.N. humanitarian officials say that at least 10,000 people have been killed since the war began in March 2015.
“Over 17 million people are currently unable to adequately feed themselves and are frequently forced to skip meals — women and girls eat the least and last,” McGoldrick said. “Seven million Yemenis do not know where their next meal will come from and are ever closer to starvation.”
There are now signs that the food insecurity will worsen.
Airstrikes by a U.S.-backed, Saudi-led regional coalition that is supporting the Yemeni government have destroyed or damaged roads and bridges across Hodeidah province. Unexploded rockets, McGoldrick added, have landed inside the port, further reducing imports and the number of ships willing to come to Yemen.
The Saudi-led coalition, which is enforcing a blockade that is restricting food imports, has told humanitarian agencies to redirect shipments to the smaller port in Aden, he said. That means vital food and medicine will need to be trucked from Aden, in the south, through war zones to reach the millions at risk of starvation in the north.
Meanwhile, food and fuel prices are rising, and hundreds of thousands of government employees have not been paid in months.
McGoldrick called on Yemen’s warring factions and “those that have influence over the parties” to ensure that food quickly enters the country.
“The best means to prevent famine in Yemen is for weapons to fall silent across the country and for the parties to the conflict to return to the negotiating table,” he said.