Since the Houthi takeover of Sana’a in September 2014 and the subsequent military intervention by the Saudi-led coalition, the number of internally displaced people (IDPs) in Yemen has increased eight-fold, from 430,000 in 2012 to 3.65 million in 2019. This article explores the realities of internal displacement in Yemen, the challenges faced by IDPs and the communities hosting them in accessing assistance and the opportunities for a more effective humanitarian response. It calls on the humanitarian sector to develop more robust community engagement mechanisms and a more holistic approach that takes into account local conditions, and the increasing pressure on both those internally displaced and the communities hosting them.
The humanitarian situation
Four governorates – Marib, Taiz, Hajjah and Hodeida – were housing around 53% of IDPs in late 2018, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM)’s Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM).+IOM DTM, ‘Yemen Area Assessment Round 37’, March 2019. Hodeida has been a favoured destination for internally displaced Yemenis because of the presence of active humanitarian organisations there, and because most IDPs are unable to finance the difficult journey to other locations. With the intensification of fighting for the city in June 2018, more than half a million people, mostly women and children, were displaced.+Norwegian Refugee Council, ‘On-the-record update on situation in Hodeidah, Yemen’, 28 September 2019. Many headed north to Sana’a or to safer areas along the west coast and the southern port city of Aden. Despite the UN-sponsored Stockholm Agreement between the Yemeni government and the Houthis, which was supposed to bring a halt to the fighting in Hodeida, another 8,000 families were displaced between January and June 2019, most of whom relocated to Sana’a, Amanat al-Asimah, Taiz, Aden and rural Hodeida.+Relief Web, ‘Yemen fact sheet’, 30 June 2019. The situation in Hodeida remains tense.
The psychological trauma of displacement is being compounded by perceptions of IDPs as a ‘burden’ on host communities. IDPs interviewed for this article described how they limited interactions with people in host communities in order to minimise feelings of distress. One respondent referred to the shame they felt at their situation: ‘I’d never thought I’d live under these conditions. How can I live in such misery and face people I know under such drastic life changes?’ Conversely, IDPs can be isolated in remote areas, again exacerbating the negative psychological effects of displacement and war. There are, though, examples of social solidarity in the relationship between displaced people and surrounding families, exemplified for instance in inter-marriage between the two communities. Respondents generally called for psychosocial support from international organisations to reduce tensions between IDPs and host communities and address the trauma associated with displacement.
The humanitarian response
Only about 50% of the 24.1 million Yemenis in need of assistance are actually receiving it.+European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, ‘Yemen: factsheet’, 60 July 2019. While under-funding is one reason for this shortfall – the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan (YHRP) is more than $1.5 billion short – there are also other factors, including the time it takes to confirm aid eligibility and limited operational capacity, contributing to delays; according to one humanitarian worker in al-Zaydiah, it can take three months for emergency aid to be delivered. Coordination among international NGOs in delivering assistance remains limited, their engagement with local actors has been inadequate and ad hoc and communication with IDPs has been limited and ineffective. Feedback mechanisms such as hotlines and WhatsApp groups used to communicate with recipients seem to have raised expectations among affected populations without actually resolving the problems they face. While the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has recently begun in-kind distributions to host communities, targeting of assistance seems to have focused on IDPs. According to one interviewee for this article in Mae’n district in Sana’a: ‘A major shortcoming is failing to acknowledge our existing needs. Seeing my neighbour from Hodeida receive aid for forced relocation makes me feel confused about my situation and less compassionate. I have no money and I cannot afford a family meal but I am yet to be identified by NGOs as eligible for assistance’. As one IDP put it: ‘The vulnerability of the host community could be as much as ours’.
Cash assistance has proved an effective tool in giving Yemenis some sense of normality despite the humanitarian crisis. In 2018, more than a million IDPs received in-kind or cash interventions, according to UNHCR.+ACTED, ‘Finding safe shelter for displaced families in Yemen’. In October alone, 28,000 families in 14 governorates benefited from direct UNHCR cash assistance through Bank al-Amal.+Ibid. Multi-purpose cash transfers enable recipients to determine their own priorities, especially in the absence of an income source, and there is an opportunity to sustain and scale up the Social Development Fund (SDF) and Small and Micro Enterprise Promotion Services (SMEPS), which have supported community-based business development and invigorated the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Yemen. SMEPS has created over 189,000 job opportunities in the agricultural sector, including for IDPs, by micro-financing, training and/or providing modern technology to farmers, and agri-businesses more broadly.+SMEPS, ‘SMEPS annual report 2018/2019’. These efforts demonstrate that, while cash grants offer beneficiaries more freedom, they also generate short- and long-term job opportunities that partly offset state dysfunction and reduce economic insecurity.
Interviews for this article demonstrate the need for more locally owned humanitarian response in Yemen, with engagement with local communities put at the heart of the response. Respondents pointed to the need to deepen the level of engagement of local NGOs and IDPs throughout the process of aid delivery, and not just as implementing partners. A stronger focus on IDPs and host communities could also help ensure that the social fabric in Yemen is maintained, and that local grievances are not amplified.
Ibrahim Jalal is Non-resident Scholar in the Yemen and Gulf Programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC. Sherine El Taraboulsi-McCarthy is Interim Senior Research Fellow with the Humanitarian Policy Group (HPG) at ODI.