Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

On Jolie’s Visit to Yemen and the Call for International Solidarity

Jolie’s Visit to Yemen
United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) special envoy Angelina Jolie reacts at a camp for the internally displaced north of Yemen’s southern city of Aden. Saleh Al-OBEIDI / AFP

Ali Noureddine

This article has been translated from Arabic to English.

American film star Angelina Jolie chose to tweet from the city of Aden in Yemen to highlight the suffering of the country’s refugees, whose plight has recently not received the attention it deserves, whether from the media or international humanitarian organizations. Jolie summarized her message with the candid remark: “All refugees and displaced persons from Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia and Ukraine deserve equal treatment and rights,” in reference to the media and humanitarian organizations’ skewed focus on the world’s various refugee crises, and their discernment in dealing with this issue.

The actor, who also serves as the Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, reminded the world that more than 20 million people in Yemen rely on humanitarian aid to survive with one civilian death or injury occurring every hour in 2022. This visit, as is evident from Jolie’s statements, is meant as an occasion to mobilize media and international support on this issue ahead of the international donors’ conference dedicated to the Yemen crisis due to be held in mid-March.

A stifling humanitarian crisis

Apart from Jolie’s visit, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ reports make the seriousness of the humanitarian crisis that the Yemeni people are enduring today abundantly clear. According to UNHCR, the refugee crisis resulting from the war in Yemen has remained the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world for four years in a row, with 66 percent of the Yemeni people in desperate need of humanitarian aid in order to survive. In fact, UNHCR figures indicate that some 4 million Yemenis have been forced to flee their areas, while Yemen hosts over 177,000 refugees or asylum-seekers from outside the country, with most coming from Somalia. UNHCR’s own assessments indicate that these refugees are four times more likely to be at risk of starvation compared to the country’s general population, keeping in mind that around 65% of these refugees are currently comprised of women, children and the elderly.

No less alarming are figures from the International Organization for Migration figures, whose statistics indicate that around 32,000 Yemenis are “stuck in miserable conditions in Yemen,” meaning that due to the war they are unable to return to their homes to find alternative shelter. As a result, since May 2020 more than 18,000 Yemenis, using primitive and unsafe means, have risked their lives by trying to migrate by sea towards Djibouti, Sudan or Ethiopia, with a large number of them losing their lives in accidents that see such overcrowded and archaic ships capsize at sea. Even more concerning is refugees’ risk of being killed while trying to escape by sea as shrapnel from hostilities occurring along Yemen’s western coast damage the ships they use to flee.

In some cases, Yemeni refugees have had to traverse multiple countries as they head to Europe in search of work and livelihood opportunities, which necessitates twice as many illegal sea crossings. Such long and perilous journeys automatically increased the risk of refugees being mistreated or arrested, or even being subjected to appalling living conditions, especially given that many media reports have cited recurring attacks on Yemeni refugees in various African and Middle Eastern countries, driving them from their temporary shelters.

Prevailing factors

The factors that further exacerbate conditions for refugees in Yemen have multiplied in recent months, underscoring Jolie’s bid to increase media attention on this issue, and highlighting the growing risks facing this community. Since the beginning of 2022, due to a severe decline in funding, the United Nations has had to reduce or shutter two-thirds of its programs geared toward meeting the needs of Yemeni refugees. Consequently, this development prompted Stephane Dujarric, the official spokesman for the United Nations, to warn of further possible reductions in the body’s scope of work in Yemen as a result of the loss in funds needed to pursue these activities. In his warning, Dujarric indicated that the United Nations has already had to cut the food rations it offers periodically by half, depriving about 8 million Yemenis of the food aid they previously received.

This assemblage of circumstances prompted David Beasley, the Executive Director of the World Food Program, to warn in late February of an impending humanitarian catastrophe due to dwindling humanitarian funding. The scene Beasley expects will soon look something like the following: Unless humanitarian organizations in Yemen receive immediate funding, we will have no choice but to take food from the hungry in order to feed the starving. Moreover, it’s possible that these organizations will even lose the ability to feed the starving, which, in Beasley’s words, will make Yemen “hell on Earth.” These major funding challenges are what prompted the Donors’ Conference for Yemen to be held in the middle of March, in the hope of securing the funding needed to continue the humanitarian efforts to ease the plight of refugees.

In addition, the risks of the refugee crisis in Yemen have been exacerbated by the recent eruption of violence in Ukraine. Given Yemen’s reliance on imports to secure its food and fuel needs, the country is naturally witnessing rapid increases in inflation rates in parallel to the sudden and record rise in food and fuel prices worldwide. Consequently, it is expected that the communities below the extreme poverty line will increase and need urgent humanitarian intervention in order to obtain the minimum living requirements precisely for this reason. It is also expected that the cost of support operations for humanitarian organizations will increase, thus reducing the number of aid beneficiaries, noting that over the past year Yemen witnessed rapid jumps in food prices, which according to the United Nations World Food Program increased by more than 90 percent in 2021.

All of these factors have exacerbated a major aggravating factor that compounds the suffering of Yemeni refugees today, and raises the extreme poverty rate among their ranks. Since the beginning of the war in Yemen, the country’s currency, the Yemeni riyal, has continued to witness rapid drops in its value, which has led to record and repeated increases in the prices of imported food commodities. As a result, with every rise in the dollar exchange rate against the Yemeni Riyal, the purchasing power of Yemenis automatically declines, and with it the percentage of people living in poverty increases. According to the World Food Program, half of Yemeni families suffer from lack of food due to the depreciation of the local currency, high inflation rates, and the insufficiency of savings and wages to secure the food needs. As a result, more than half of Yemen’s population, or 16.2 million people, is suffering from acute hunger, while half of Yemen’s children (2.3 million) are malnourished.

All refugees are a priority

The principle of equal humanitarian concern for refugees, regardless of race or nationality, was highlighted by Jolie. Her request is timely, considering the increased focus on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine by Western media and countries in recent days, as compared to other humanitarian disasters such as the refugee crisis in Yemen. Jolie’s visit to Yemen is an opportunity to remind the world that people’s right to a decent and dignified life, as well as relief during armed conflicts, is a purely human right that should not be skewed by nationality or race, or by political interests related to the parties involved in the conflict.

The United Nations over the past year has received just $2.68 billion of the $3.85 billion it requested to fund its humanitarian operations in Yemen which was reflected in the paralysis of the agencies of international organizations, and their inability to meet the urgent humanitarian needs of Yemenis. With the donors’ conference to finance humanitarian operations in Yemen that is expected to be held in the middle of this month, the world will be facing a new humanitarian test. This conference may be the last chance to save the UN humanitarian mission in Yemen and maintain its ability to supply food to the two-thirds of the Yemeni population who are in desperate need of assistance.


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