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Tackling the Complexity of the Yemeni Crisis

Learn more at our upcoming event at Fordham University.

New York City, April 10, 2017 – Two years after the onset of conflict in Yemen, the country is facing one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Despite the two million Yemenis internally displaced, seven million at risk of famine and 18.8 million in need of humanitarian aid, less than 10 percent of the United Nations two billion dollar humanitarian appeal has been met by donor nations and nations party to the conflict have done little to cease hostilities.

Giulio Coppi, Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs Innovation Fellow, recently embarked on a fact-finding mission to Oman and Djibouti to study the impact of the crisis and subsequent forced migration in the region. He sat down with the IIHA Communications Officer, Angela Wells, to recount his findings.

What was the goal of your recent research trip on the Yemeni crisis?

This recent research trip led me to study the regional impact of the Yemeni crisis, with a special focus on migration and health. I traveled through Oman and Djibouti, meeting local actors and visiting refugee and migrant communities. I also tried – unsuccessfully – to enter Yemen to meet people and local organizations. I really focused on understanding what lies beneath the surface of the most banal crises in the current media landscape.


How would you explain the Yemeni crisis to someone unfamiliar with what lies beneath the surface of the crisis?

To an outsider with little background, Yemen could look like just another case of civil war due to bad governance and political instability, or maybe another country engulfed in sectarian and religious violence. The truth is much more complicated than that: Yemen is being intentionally strangled economically, militarily and politically by internal and international actors involved in a conflict with profound historical and geopolitical roots.

Yemen was recently listed as one of four of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time. Can you explain the situation provoking people to flee the country and the complexities humanitarian workers are dealing with within Yemen?

The inclusion of Yemen as one of four of the most serious humanitarian crises of our time comes right after its definition as a forgotten crisis. The country passed from oblivion to full spotlight in a matter of days. This is mostly due to the adoption by some organizations and UN agencies of the keyword “famine”, that immediately made it to the headlines.

Unfortunately, this leads to yet another oversimplification. It generates the false impression that all is needed is to fund agencies that deliver food. This action alone would be shortsighted and ineffective, as the situation requires a much bolder response. Humanitarians are faced with a daunting task: replacing the whole public and private sector that has been wiped away by sanctions, embargoes, violence, and corruption. Overstretched and exposed, humanitarians increase their risk of being perceived as non-neutral, or partial, and becoming a target for further violence.

We know that mixed migration flows to and from Yemen are very complex with migrants from the Horn of Africa fleeing to Yemen and Yemenis fleeing to the Horn. Can you explain this in more detail?

Due to its strategic position, Yemen has always been a crossroad of nations and people. The escalation of the conflict in 2015 resulted in a temporary suspension of the migratory movements of people from the Horn of Africa, most notably Ethiopia and Somalia, towards the Arab Gulf countries.

It is counterintuitive, but with the conflict, these figures have actually increased. Some migrants do not know about the conflict, but others actually hope the collapse of internal governance could facilitate their journey. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. Saudi Arabia and Oman have sealed and militarized their borders, and militias control most areas of Yemen, who kidnap for ransom and often abuse migrants.

On the other side, Yemenis fleeing to the Horn of Africa has actually dwindled. I found that Yemenis prefer to seek asylum in countries more culturally similar and with more economic opportunities. Most of the refugees who sought safe haven in Djibouti tried to move on as quickly as possible, once they realized the hardship of living as a migrant in the country.

What is the reality for Yemenis fleeing to nearby countries like Djibouti and Oman?

 For most Yemenis arriving in Djibouti, one of the poorest countries in the world, they are really shocked at the conditions in the camps. Markazi camp, where they are hosted, is a camp in the middle of a desolate desert. The closest city, Obock, is a provincial town without markets or livelihood opportunities. Food and other goods arrive from the capital city from time to time, while many items are still being brought in from Yemen. In summer, the camp is swept by the khamsin (dust storms with wind speeds as high as forty miles an hour), and temperatures can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Refugees endure these conditions in tents, huts or in containers with no electricity and really meager food provisions.

In Oman and Saudi Arabia, conditions are much better for those who manage to enter and stay. In contrast to Djibouti, which grants all Yemenis prima facie refugee status, Arab Gulf States are not parties to refugee treaties and only grant standard visas. While initially they made a display of generosity towards their neighbors, that attitude quickly changed as it became clear the conflict would not be a short one. Today, those under official visas – like medical or study visas – are granted the same services as local nationals. Those who are not so lucky face exclusion from any assistance, and a constant risk of deportation.

Where else are Yemenis seeking refuge and what are they experiencing in these reception countries?

Today, the majority of Yemenis are not hosted by their next door neighbors, but have rather continued on their journey to seek asylum in Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, while some have been able to make their way to Europe or the United States. Yemen has a vast diaspora, and very often families have at least one member with a foreign citizenship allowing some refugees a chance of reunification with their community abroad, be it in Djibouti, Oman, Lebanon or Germany. Those who are able to join their communities abroad have a better chance for smooth integration and acceptance by local populations. However, coexistence isn’t always easy, especially when their expanded presence puts a strain on limited land and resources, which can destabilize local demographics and add further strain to existing public services.

Recently, a boat of Somali migrants was bombed 30 miles off the coast of Yemen by Saudi-backed forces. Do you see this as a worrying trend for the future or an isolated incident and why?

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident and I do not think it will be the last. The Bab-el-Mandeb strait, a vital commercial route, was already heavily militarized before the conflict and even more so today. Furthermore, this attack is representative of a worrying trend on the access of safe routes for forced migrants globally. We see around the world how increasingly innocent civilians trying to escape the perils of war are being directly and purposefully attacked in systemic and horrifying ways. This is not only in violation of international laws, but is a deeply worrying indication that humanitarian channels and national values for unfettered humanitarian access is more compromised than every before.

 Is there anything else you’d like to add?

In these times when all the attention is focused on Syria and the horrible tragedy in Syria, it is also important to remind everyone of the words of Peter Maurer, President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC): “Yemen after five months looked like Syria after five years.”

The level and extent of the destruction in Yemen is unparalleled for intensity and impact. What is worse, very little efforts have been made by the UN Security Council to call for safe humanitarian access, cross-border protection, or cessation of hostilities in Yemen. It is about time the UN Security Council, and involved parties to the conflict, adopt a more proactive role to end this conflict, before Yemen and its population reach the point of no return.

Non-Fordham guests must register in advance for the upcoming event Tackling the Complexity of the Yemeni Crisis.

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Humanitarian News Brief: Child Migration and Central America

Child Migration and Central America: A Humanitarian Crisis

During this fiscal year, nearly 50,000 minors have been detained by U.S. immigration authorities; almost double the number from last year. This huge influx of unaccompanied minors from Central America is threatening to become the biggest refugee crisis the United States has faced since 1980 during the Mariel boatlift when thousands of Cubans fled their home country by boat. The increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the border is said to be part of a larger flow of people fleeing Central America including many families with small children. On June 2nd, President Obama ordered federal emergency authorities to take charge of the relief effort calling the surge in unaccompanied children crossing into South Texas “an urgent humanitarian situation requiring a unified and coordinated federal response.”

When children from non-contiguous countries are caught in the United States, they are taken into U.S. custody by Border Patrol Agents. According to Federal Law, unaccompanied minors can only be held in a Border Patrol facility for a maximum of 72 hours. After that, they either have to be sent to a relative in the U.S. where they will await a hearing to determine whether or not they can remain in the U.S., or they are sheltered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which falls under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS Spokesman Kenneth Wolfe said that the office operates about 100 permanent shelters for unaccompanied minors. Because of the steep increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S. border recently, all of these facilities are filled. In May, the first supplemental shelter was set up at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, which was equipped to accommodate 1,200 minors; by early June it had already received 1,000 minors. On June 2nd, officials said the youths would begin to be transferred to a new shelter at Naval Base Ventura County in Oxnard, California, which will house up to 600 children. Now, a third shelter has been set up at Fort Still in Oklahoma.

The Border Patrol’s holding facilities were not open to the press until June 18th when under mounting pressure from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups, reporters were allowed access to processing facilities in Nogales, Arizona and Brownsville, Texas under strict guidelines that included being prohibited from speaking to any of the children. Previously, leaked photographs have shown cramped cells and an inadequate supply of food, beds, toilets, and showers. A recent lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and four immigrant rights groups on behalf of 116 children are chronicling a situation that they say “paint[s] a consistent picture of widespread abuse and mistreatment.” The groups interviewed about 1,000 children between ages 5 and 17 who had been detained in Texas this year, and found about 80 percent of them had been provided “inadequate food and water.” The complaint states that, “approximately half of the children described the denial of medical care. More than half reported physical abuse…Approximately 70 percent of these children were detained beyond the 72-hour statutory limit.”

After the children are either reunited with family, or housed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, they are given a court date where they are, in theory, given the opportunity to present their claims for asylum. In reality however, the children are not required by law to have a government appointed lawyer because they are not involved in a criminal proceeding. Non-profits have been scrambling to find lawyers to represent the unaccompanied minors pro bono. Immigrant Advocacy Organizations have been calling for federally funded public defenders for unaccompanied minors, and their cries for assistance have taken on a wider scope and a new sense of urgency in the face of this new influx. Recently, the Obama administration said it was starting a program to provide lawyers for children facing deportation. Under the program, the federal government will issue $2 million in grants for 100 lawyers and paralegals to represent immigrant children. In a statement issued by the Justice Department, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said, “How we treat those in need, particularly young people who must appear in immigration proceedings — many of whom are fleeing violence, persecution, abuse or trafficking — goes to the core of who we are as anation.” Advocates gladly welcomed the program saying that it was long overdue. There are however, challenges presented by the new plan such as lack of training for this specific type of court case. Other advocates have critiqued the program as a seemingly small measure that fails to cope with a much larger problem, saying that, “a hundred lawyers nationwide is not going to satisfy our commitment to protecting these children…If we have to give lawyers to murderers, then perhaps we should give them to refugee orphans.” A spokeswoman for a community service corporation noted that, “The program has been in the works for a really long time… it’s consistent with the [Obama] administration’s efforts to provide a comprehensive response to the influx.” Despite the administration’s commitment to support lawyers who will help these unaccompanied minors attain asylum in the U.S., Cecilia Munoz, Director of the Domestic Policy Council at the White House, surprisingly anticipates that many of these young children may be deported regardless of the legal representation. In a recent article, Munoz states, “The end result of this process is likely to be that the vast majority of those kids end up going back. There may be some isolated cases where there is some basis for them to be able to stay, but the borders of the United States are not open, not even for children who come on their own, and the deportation process starts when they get here, and we expect that it will continue for the vast majority of these kids.”

There are many push factors that are creating this influx of unaccompanied minors crossing the border. The unrest and economic hardship plaguing many Central American countries due to gang related violence is one of the main reasons why many young people are fleeing their home countries. Daniel Penado Zavala was 17 years old when he decided to leave his home country of El Salvador after his stepfather was slain by gang members. He thought that if he stayed, he too would be a victim if he resisted the wishes of the gangs. He saved $7,000 to pay a smuggler, frequently known as a coyote, to arrange his journey first from El Salvador to Mexico, and then from Mexico to Texas. Daniel’s story is just one of many tales of young children fleeing gangs who are increasingly recruiting from schools, youth centers, and youth groups at churches to fill roles such as drug mules and assassins. In a meeting at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, DC on June 13th, the President of Honduras spoke of the role that U.S. drug consumers have played in this disaster, “We are very worried about the children, but sadly this is a security problem provoked by drug trafficking from the drugs consumed by the U.S., and this has had an impact on the situation involving the displacement [of Hondurans].” Honduras currently has the highest murder rate in the world. In one of its cities, San Pedro Sula, 169 out of 100,000 people are murdered, making it the deadliest city in the world.

Some lawmakers, Republicans especially, are blaming President Obama and his lax immigration policies as possible pull factors for why so many children are coming into Texas. On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden extended a planned trip to Central America in order to have a summit-type meeting, to be held in Guatemala, on this issue with the Presidents of Guatemala and El Salvador along with a top official from Honduras. Senior Obama Administration officials told reporters that they are greatly concerned by the surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America coming to the United States. They said, “our top priority is to manage this urgent humanitarian situation… The entire U.S. administration is engaged in addressing the situation, in making sure these children are housed and fed and receive medical treatment, but at the same time we also realize the crucial importance of stemming the tide of migration.” There are misleading rumors in Central America that children who make it to the United States by June 2014 will be eligible for deferred deportation or may be eligible to stay in the U.S. indefinitely or permanently. Usually June and July are months where immigration rates are not as high, but this year will be an exception.   Senior Obama administration officials said that, “The vice president will be making this trip to Guatemala to discuss both the violence and economic opportunity side and the misperceptions of U.S. immigration policy… while he’s there in Guatemala he will emphasize that illegal immigration is not safe. That putting your child in the handsof a criminal smuggling organization is not safe. And he will make clear that recently arriving children arenot eligible for [the deferred deportation program] or earned citizenship provisions in current immigration reform legislation…the bottom line is that it’s not worth subjecting children to a perilous journey when, at the end of the day, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.” Last Wednesday, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson told Congress that his agency was struggling to keep up with the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing into the United States saying, “the numbers are rising… Undeniably, there is a problem of humanitarian proportions.”

A Texas lawmaker, U.S. Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas’ 28th District, recently visited with Border Patrol agents and children while touring an immigration detention facility. Talking to the Border Patrol agents, Cuellar found that they were pained to see so many children and mothers crossing the border. He has asserted that the United States must do more than use enforcement to stop this surge of child migrants. He is urging the country to do more to prevent children from dangerously travelling to the United States in search of economic opportunity and safety by helping to build up the Central American economy: “We as Congress pay attention to all over the world except our own backyard… I’ve been saying we have to do more with those economies in the south. If not, they are going to keep coming.”

To deal with the influx of immigrants the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services Committee unveiled a $1.94 billion bill that would give the Department of Health and Human Services the means to fully deal with the increase. Meanwhile, the White House has announced that the issue will be addressed in the upcoming Homeland Security and State Department appropriation bills. The bills will not ask for increases for the already-written departmental allocations, but will instead halt or reverse sequestration limits for more than two-dozen areas. Administration officials further announced $9.6 million in additional support to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala to help them reintegrate people who have been sent back, along with $40 million to launch a program to improve security in Guatemala, a $25 million program to provide services to youth in El Salvador who are vulnerable to organized crime, and $18.5 million to build youth outreach centers in Honduras. While most of the recent attention has been focused on the influx of unaccompanied minor immigrants coming into the U.S., law enforcement officials are becoming increasingly worried about the effect this surge is having on drug traffic coming into the U.S. The Border Patrol union representative in the Rio Grande region, Chris Cabrera, highlighted the issue in a recent statement, saying, “The arrival of large groups of women and children on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande is pulling agents away from their patrol stations elsewhere along the border, creating gaps in coverage that the traffickers can exploit… The smugglers wait on the southern banks of the Rio Grande as migrant groups as large as 250 wade across at dusk and turn themselves in to the Border Patrol…then groups of single men proceed to cross under cover of darkness…The most recent statistics…show that narcotics seizures have fallen across the entire border with Mexico this year.”

Updated 6/23/14

Margaret Dunne, IIHA Intern

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