Battle for Hodeida puts local aid workers in the crosshairs

Workers inspect damage at the site of an air strike on the maintenance hub at the Hodeida port in Yemen on May 27. Photo by: REUTERS / Abduljabbar Zeyad

BRUSSELS — A Saudi-led offensive against Houthi rebels on Yemen’s major port of Hodeida could increase risks of cholera and famine as access to food and water plummets, humanitarians are warning, while exposing aid agencies’ reliance on local staff to provide assistance in the most dangerous settings.

Wednesday’s airstrikes and the beginnings of a ground assault by the coalition of Arab states on the city risk cutting off a lifeline of food and supplies international NGOs are straining to deliver across the country. Approximately 22 million people in Yemen — or three-quarters of the population — need humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. 

Humanitarian workers described a “steady, gradual decline” in conditions. “We keep thinking we have hit rock bottom,” said Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy adviser for the Norwegian Refugee Council. “In recent weeks, the thing I notice most is people feel a complete lack of control. Humanitarian organizations typically engage with parties to the conflict and put regulations in place, but we have seen those disregarded as the rules of war seem to be disregarded. Civilians are completely in the path of conflict at all times. It has become an incredibly unpredictable landscape.”

Prior to the latest offensive, a spate of attacks also hit groups including the International Committee of the Red Cross, NRC, World Food Programme and Médecins Sans Frontières.

ICRC announced last week it was pulling 71 of its 88 international staff members out of the country over mounting security concerns, after a Lebanese employee was shot dead in April near the southwestern city of Taiz. More than 450 Yemenis are still working for ICRC in the country, according to spokeswoman Marie Claire Feghali.

“If we can expect Yemeni staff or local staff in any country to stay and deliver when things get dangerous, why aren’t we able to trust them [to take the lead] in the same way when things are safe?”

— Suze van Meegen, protection and advocacy adviser at NRC

NRC has between 30 and 40 Yemeni staff working in and around Hodeida, and one international staffer — currently outside the country for separate reasons. The organization has a total of 16 international staff based throughout Yemen, of whom roughly half are in the country at any one time. The security situation has become increasingly volatile in recent months, leading some staff to limit time outside their homes.

“It does beg the question and something I think we all need to reflect on is, if we can expect Yemeni staff or local staff in any country to stay and deliver when things get dangerous, why aren’t we able to trust them [to take the lead] in the same way when things are safe?” Van Meegen said.

On the issue of safety, she added: “We do take different precautions with international staff when it comes to things like kidnapping, for example [where there is sometimes a greater risk against them] … But when it comes to something that doesn’t discriminate like an airstrike, I don’t think we should have different standards.”

ICRC’s humanitarian operations in Hodeida and elsewhere in the country are now being remotely controlled from Djibouti. Some of ICRC’s non-life-saving programs have also been put on hold, leaving the group’s response capacity reduced but “not nonexistent,” according to Feghali.

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Until now, the situation has been safer for local Yemeni staff, considering their deep knowledge of the country and conflict, Feghali said. “Now it’s not safe for anyone,” she said, adding that the ICRC did not evacuate Yemeni employees who did not wish to leave their families, nor bring their family with them abroad.

Aid groups said they were warned by some Western governments to prepare for this week’s offensive, and have already stored supplies in areas they believe are least likely to be bombed, as well as backing up computer systems. Local staff in Hodeida told Van Meegen their main concern was that the fighting could cut the city’s water supply, increasing the risk of cholera as residents turn to other sources. The likely closure of the Hodeida port — responsible for at least 70 percent of all shipments to Yemen — would also further limit aid operations.

“We have been able to continue as much as possible. Our real concern is if the port shuts down, which is looking quite likely, we won’t have access to the food we need to feed people. Some of the roads could be so damaged we won’t be able to reach communities,” Van Meegen said.

“The majority of us are relying on commercial markets, so when they are damaged, so too is our capacity to access humanitarian supplies. If Hodeida is blocked or damaged, everything is required to come through Aden, and those commercial prices could skyrocket.”

Banking conflict exacerbates Yemen's cholera and famine

Underpinning a catastrophic cholera crisis and near-famine conditions is something even more fundamental: Yemen is out of cash. The Central Bank of Yemen now sits at the heart of the country's political crisis, leaving civil servants unpaid and an entire social safety net in collapse.

The country’s collapsed economy and rising inflation have already pushed food — still widely available in urban markets — out of reach for many Yemenis. The country is on the brink of famine, with an estimated 8.4 million Yemeni people considered food insecure. Another 10 million could join these ranks by the end of 2018 if “conditions do not improve,” U.N. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock said in May. 

The bid to capture Hodeida — a Houthi-controlled city of about 600,000 people — marks the largest offensive yet in the country’s civil war, often called the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” The Houthi separatist movement, supported by Iran, seized the capital Sanaa in 2014. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are backing efforts to restore the internationally-recognized government of exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

The U.N. said Monday it was withdrawing all but a skeleton team of local staff from Hodeida, a few days after unidentified sources reportedly attacked a WFP boat delivering shipments at the port. As the offensive began, Lisa Grande, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, told Reuters: “We are there and delivering; we are not leaving Hodeida … We have a ship offloading food even as shelling and bombing is happening. Humanitarians will not walk away.”

Work is being based on a “program criticality” framework, to balance risk with the importance of the projects, according to Sophie Solomon, an access adviser at the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs who worked in Yemen in 2016 and 2017.

“In a context like Yemen, only staff with program criticality 1 or 2, which is really life saving, are allowed to stay in the country. That’s why the presence of the U.N. is not that big in Yemen,” she said. “It means that we are taking a risk because we do believe that the service that is offered to the community is essential.”

MSF and ICRC have their own aircraft and make their own decisions about whether to evacuate, Solomon said. Other INGOs in Yemen rely on U.N. air services for access, meaning their decision lies more with the U.N. Those INGOs and the U.N. share information and training on security issues through the voluntary Saving Lives Together initiative, Solomon said; after that, it’s up to each NGO to decide if they want to stay or leave.

Solomon added that INGOs and the U.N were constantly collaborating on a response plan for Hodeida, with trigger points designed to prompt certain actions or projects. Triggers could include the number of displaced people surpassing a given level, or an increase in cholera cases, for example. The plan is approximative, Solomon said, but van Meegen said previous estimates had been wide of the mark. Last March, the response plan predicted that any attack in Hodeida would see a half million people displaced to the north. “What we actually saw was that maybe 150,000 people all fled south,” van Meegen said.

Prediction and protection for aid workers are just as uncertain. Airstrikes landing on, or near, aid facilities in recent weeks came despite agreements with the Saudi-led military coalition to avoid bombing within 500 meters of INGO facilities.

Jolien Veldwijk, assistant country director for program quality for CARE International, said that although INGOs are left to make their own decision about whether to stay or go, the reliance on the U.N. to fly out of the country means sometimes they don’t have a choice.

“I don’t think we would always want to follow the U.N., but sometimes we are forced to. Even within the U.N. there are a lot of differences of opinion as well,” she said. “Our intel isn’t always the same as their intel, but because our evacuation methods rely so heavily on them, we have to follow their lead.”

Martin Griffiths, the recently appointed U.N. special envoy for Yemen, issued a statement Wednesday saying that there is no military solution to the conflict. He added that the assault on Hodeida will affect “the dire humanitarian situation in the country” and “my efforts to resume political negotiations to reach an inclusive political settlement to the conflict in Yemen.”

Previous U.N.-backed peace talks have not resulted in any lasting ceasefires. The U.N. Security Council will meet to discuss the Hodeida offensive on Thursday at the request of the United Kingdom, Reuters reported. France and Saudi Arabia are planning a joint conference on the humanitarian response to the conflict on June 27 in the French capital.

Update, June 14: This story was updated in response to new concerns.

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