UNHCR’s programmes to fight the coronavirus and respond to the impact of the conflict on civilians and displacement in Yemen will be severely cut without an urgent injection of cash. The warning came one day after a pledging conference for Yemen fell a billion dollars short of the USD 2.41 billion requested by aid agencies to fund life-saving programmes until the end of the year. The virus is thought to be spreading rapidly in the country, despite only a few hundred cases of COVID-19 being officially recorded.
An interview with UNHCR’s representative in Yemen, Jean-Nicolas Beuze, explains the role of UNHCR Yemen in protecting displaced families – both refugees and Yemenis – and how the funding shortfall might force the operation to stop life-saving support to some of these vulnerable families.
Could you tell us how does the situation look like in Yemen right now?
Five years of conflict coupled with decade of underdevelopment have worn out the Yemeni population: the UN estimates that 80 percent of the population relies on external humanitarian aid for their daily survival. More than one Yemeni out of eight has been displaced by the conflict that is showing no respite and is still killing civilians. UNHCR has been present in Yemen for a decade not only because this is the fourth largest internal displacement crisis in the world, but also because of the presence of some 280,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, who against all odds, have found a not-so-safe haven in the country.
The coronavirus pandemic – coupled with other diseases such as cholera or malaria – has added another layer of misery for the population and complications for humanitarian partners in what was already labelled as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. For refugees and displaced Yemeni families who live in impoverished urban neighborhoods or unsanitary and overcrowded displacement sites, physical distancing or regular handwashing is impossible. All live on meagre daily wages and now the slowing down of the economy and restrictions on movement are pushing families further into extreme poverty.
Please let us know, in your view, how will the funding shortfall affect the operation in Yemen and why is cash assistance important to displaced families? How is it impacting their lives?
UNHCR, like other humanitarian organizations, is now facing an ethical dilemma as we are forced to make choices between who to help and in what way. The lack of funding is forcing us to drastically reduce our distribution of emergency shelter kits, leaving thousands of families to live in the open, exposed to the elements at a time of flooding and without protection against communicable diseases or abuse from surrounding communities. Tighter selection among beneficiaries of our cash programme will leave scores of families without financial means to buy food, medicine, or clothes. It will force displaced Yemeni and refugee families to make choices that may endanger their health and wellbeing such as cutting on their food intake, begging on the street, engaging themselves or their children in hazardous work or in extreme cases, to marry off their children or engage in survival sex.
Today, UNHCR’s cash programme is a lifeline for more than 1.5 million extremely vulnerable displaced persons. Reducing the amount of cash UNHCR provides, or separating those slightly less vulnerable will inevitably leave some families without any survival means, especially those who have been recently forced to leave their homes due to conflict. Refugees will suffer here unequally as UNHCR is the main provider of support for refugees since they are unable to access public services and are often discriminated against in terms of socio-economic or job opportunities.
How is UNHCR Yemen responding to the current health crisis, the COVID19 outbreak? (Any preventive measures taken regarding refugees and displaced families?)
UNHCR immediately put together a COVID-19 prevention programme by distributing hygiene kits and expanding its cash programme to the most vulnerable refugee and displaced Yemeni families. Through its network of protection outreach volunteers, campaigns about handwashing and physical distancing, but also safe and humane referral of patients demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms, were rolled out in the most at-risk locations.
In parallel, UNHCR equipped all its frontline partners, especially health and community engagement partners, as well as its own staff, with personal protective equipment to ensure that both humanitarian workers and beneficiaries of our interventions would be safe. For example, psychosocial support group activities and distributions of lifesaving items such as tents, mattresses, blankets or kitchen utensils were replaced by one-on-one interventions – some being carried out by phone.
UNHCR has also proposed to have a “cash for COVID-19” programme targeting the most vulnerable of all displaced families to help them go through the pandemic without having to take risks by moving around in search of livelihoods opportunities or for families with older persons, persons with disabilities or pregnant and nursing women. This programme also has a component on “cash for burial” to allow bereaved families to bury their dead in dignity. Unfortunately, this “cash for COVID-19” programme has not yet found any donor, despite its modest cost: USD 35 million to help more than 71,000 extremely vulnerable families without any other resources to survive the pandemic.
How does UNHCR select the most vulnerable among Yemeni displaced families? What is the selection criteria being followed?
As an emergency organization responding to the situation in Yemen, UNHCR focuses on addressing the needs and protecting the most vulnerable displaced families, either Yemenis displaced within their own country due to the conflict, or refugees coming from East Africa and primarily Somalia to escape war and persecutions. Due to the low level of funding compared to these needs, UNHCR is forced to apply strict criteria such as focusing on recently displaced families who have lost everything when fleeing the fighting, shelling or bombing of their homes. We also pay particular attention to the needs of women and children, especially when they are on their own or heading their families, as well as the specific situation of persons with disabilities and older persons who are often entirely dependent on our support for their survival.
The selection of beneficiaries is done through individual assessments carried out by UNHCR and its partners. Services – from assisting Yemenis to get back their IDs so that they can access public services such as health or education, to psychological and medical support, to survivors of violence, including of a sexual nature – and assistance – from our shelter kits to our cash – are adapted to the specific situation of each individual. Some interventions are one-off, such as providing a shelter, while others require constant monitoring and follow-up as it takes time to heal from grave violations that are the daily occurrence in Yemen.
What is the message you would like to voice on behalf of those in need in Yemen? Especially for refugees and displaced families?
The incredible resilience that displaced families – Yemenis and refugees – demonstrate, but also the immense generosity of the communities and families hosting them in these dire circumstances command us not to abandon Yemen right now. The international community – you and me included – owe them the support they now need to survive and help them to rebuild their lives and regain their dignity. In addition to the humanitarian and ethical imperative that should always govern our solidarity with Yemeni displaced families and refugees globally, there is now a public health imperative: nobody will be safe from the coronavirus without everyone being safe. While I acknowledge the concern of many about their own public health system and the socio-economic impact of the pandemic on their loved ones, Yemen is amongst the weakest link in this common fight against the spread of the pandemic. Yemen cannot wait.