The Forgotten Generation: The Children of Yemen
1st August 2020
The largest humanitarian crisis in the world is occurring in Yemen right now, and the world is still glossing over it. Five years of war, pitting the internationally-recognised government backed by a Saudi-led coalition against the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels – and civilians are the ones who continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. What is already the poorest nation in the Middle East has seen its economy decimated, leaving millions unemployed. Yemen’s health infrastructure has been devastated, leaving its people open to repeated disease outbreaks, malnutrition, and increasing vulnerabilities. And Yemen is an arid country, access to water depends on bore holes and pumping stations which require expensive fuel to operate; even clean water is in short supply.
Of course, as if the conflict, economic shocks, extensive floods and desert locusts are not enough, Covid-19 has served to only exacerbate the situation. It has created an emergency within an emergency. Only half of the country’s already insufficient health facilities were functioning before the pandemic; now many of the remaining facilities have been devoted entirely to the care of those suffering from Covid-19, all the while lacking in basic equipment, such as PPE, oxygen and other essential services needed to treat the virus.
The testing and reporting of the virus remains limited, and people with severe symptoms, such as high fevers and laboured breathing, must be turned away from health facilities that are overflowing or simply unable to provide safe treatment. Many health workers are receiving no salaries or incentives.
Overall, more than 24 million people (a staggering 80 per cent of the population) are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. According to the Statement on Yemen by the Principals of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee of UNICEF, the conflict in Yemen has a disproportionate impact on women and children. Yemen is already acknowledged as one of the worst places on earth to be a woman or a child. After five years of war, over 12 million children and 6 million women of childbearing age need some kind of humanitarian assistance. Safety, health, nutrition and education are already constantly at risk as infrastructure collapses from the violence. For these 12 million children, Yemen has become a living hell.
Children continue to be killed and injured in the violence; twelve children have been recently lost to airstrikes. Damage done to schools and hospitals has led to their closure, disrupting access to both education and health services. Even before the pandemic began, around 2 million children were out of school. Now, that number is closer to 7.8 million – and they don’t even have the ability to access distanced or online learning as our children do. They can’t even go out to play.
This is leaving them even more vulnerable and is robbing children of their futures.The widespread absence from classes and education, combined with a worsening economy, may put older children specifically at an even greater risk of child labour, recruitment into armed groups and child marriage. Of the 3.6 million displaced Yemenis who have been forced to flee their homes, around 972,000 of these, or 27 per cent, are under the age of eighteen. They are now facing much more than the traditional barriers encountered when trying to access healthcare in such harsh conditions. Most of them live in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions.
“Of the 3.6 million displaced Yemenis who have been forced to flee their homes, around 972,000 of these, or 27 per cent, are under the age of eighteen”
The coronavirus will impact children potentially more drastically than in any other country. UNICEF has published some startling numbers. 10.2 million children do not have proper access to basic healthcare. Almost 10 million children do not have proper access to water and sanitation. More than 8 million people, nearly half of them children, are depending directly on the agency WASH for water, sanitation and hygiene services. Almost half a million Yemeni children are already malnourished.
However, as Covid-19 spreads, it has been calculated that 30,000 children could develop life-threatening, severe acute malnutrition over the next six months. The overall number of malnourished children under the age of five could increase to 2.4 million. This malnutrition, combined with the lack of clean water, has left their immune systems already dangerously compromised, meaning that the children have become at immediate risk of life-threatening diseases like malaria and cholera, in addition to Covid-19. It is estimated that a further 6,600 children under five could die from preventable causes by the end of 2020.
Humanitarian agencies are doing everything they can to help: rapidly upscaling proven publish health measures against Covid-19, such as early detection and frequent testing, isolation, treatment and contact-tracing actively promoting personal hygiene as well as social distancing, mobilising supplies and equipment needed for healthcare, and maintaining essential health and humanitarian services. Authorities across Yemen have been called upon to report cases transparently, as well as to adapt measures to further suppress and control the spread of the disease. But help from large governments is required too.
On 2nd June at a virtual donor conference, mainly Arab as well as some Western countries pledged $1.35bn for aid operations in Yemen. This, however, is far less than the $2.4bn the UN originally asked for, as well as the $3.6bn the UN received last year. Millions of people will not get essential nutritional and vitamin supplements, or immunisation against deadly diseases. Many children will be pushed to the brink of starvation, many succumb to Covid-19, many will suffer from cholera, and many will die. Mark Lowcock, the UN humanitarian chief, told Security Council members that the choice was between “supporting the humanitarian response in Yemen and helping to create the space for a sustainable political situation, or watch Yemen fall off the cliff.”
According to Sara Beysolow Nyanti, UNICEF Representative to Yemen the scale of this emergency can simply not be overstated. “As the world’s attention focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic I fear the children of Yemen will be all but forgotten. Despite our own preoccupations right now, we all have a responsibility to act and help the children of Yemen. They have the same rights of any child, anywhere.” Nyanti says that by just standing by, the international community will send a clear message that the lives of innocent children devastated by conflict, economic collapse, and no disease, simply do not matter. She describes her worry during a recent Zoom call with children from across Yemen: “They talked about the fact that they feel there is no one listening to them,” she said. “These children feel forgotten.”
Yemen’s humanitarian crisis and that of its children have never been more severe, or funding more constrained. However, although the entire world is undoubtedly suffering as we all fight our own pandemic-induced demons, we and our governments must do our best and do more to remember and to help those children straddling the slim fence between life and death.
Featured photo by EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid