While displacement is not a new phenomenon in Yemen, the number of people fleeing violence increased sharply in 2015 after a deterioration in the political and security situation. The country had the highest number of new internal displacements caused by conflict in 2015, and the ensuing humanitarian and displacement crisis has since shown few signs of abating. In 2017, new displacement figures were significantly lower than recorded in previous years, however those displaced face severe insecurity and need. In addition, due to limited access, the numbers do not paint a full picture of the level of displacement in the country. An uptick in violence and a decrease in access has significantly affected information coming out of the country, including displacement numbers. The UN’s humanitarian chief has warned that the country could become the worst humanitarian disaster in half a century.
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has been plagued with social and political unrest since its troubled unification in 1990. With few natural resources, weak governance and social services, high youth unemployment and almost 50 per cent of its 26.8 million population living below the poverty line in 2014, the country’s humanitarian needs were already acute before the conflict escalated in March 2015. Half the population, 70 per cent of whom live in rural areas, had no access to safe drinking water, and three-quarters had no access to safe sanitation. Gender inequality is widespread. Yemen has ranked last in the World Economic Forum’s annual global gender gap report in each of the ten years it has been published. Since the escalation of violence in 2015, the situation of Yemenis has significantly deteriorated.
The upsurge in violence has largely been attributed to the Saudi-led military intervention in the conflict. The sharp deterioration in living conditions is predominantly the result of recurrent land, sea and air blockades of commercial and humanitarian imports imposed by the Saudi-led coalition.
Yemen has been in a state of political crisis since 2011, when President Ali Abdullah Saleh staged a violent crackdown on demonstrators before eventually agreeing to step down. The Houthis (officially known as Ansar Allah), which champion Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and had fought a series of rebellions against Saleh during the previous decade, took advantage of the weakness of the new president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, by taking control of their northern Saada province heartland and neighbouring areas. Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis, including Sunnis, supported the Houthis, and in September 2014 they entered Sana’a, the capital.
In January 2015, the Houthi fighters reinforced their takeover of Sana’a, surrounding the presidential palace and other key points, effectively placing President Hadi and his cabinet ministers under house arrest. The Houthi fighters and security forces loyal to Saleh then attempted to take control of the entire country, forcing Hadi to flee abroad in March 2015. Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by Iran, a regional Shia power, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab statesbegan an air campaign to restore Hadi's government.
Taking advantage of the subsequent power vacuum, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its control over vast parts of Yemen’s south throughout 2015, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also began launching attacks in the country, mainly targeting sites affiliated with the Houthi movement and AQAP. Currently, these terrorist groups continue to carry out attacks, mainly in the south, but do not control territory. To add to this complex mix in a heavily destabilised country, new groups also entered loose alliances with one side or the other, leading to the proliferation of armed groups on both sides, each with its specific loyalties and agenda.
At the height of the crisis in 2015, over two million people were recorded to have been newly displaced in that year. In 2017, about 160,000 new displacements were recorded, with two million living in a situation of displacement. This number is likely to be a gross underestimate of new displacements, as the increase in violence and subsequent decrease in the access of humanitarians, researchers, data collectors and the media has made it impossible to get a comprehensive picture of displacement in Yemen.
Yemen was also hit by sudden-onset disasters in 2015. The cyclones Megh and Chapala brought the equivalent of five years of rainfall to the Hadramaut, Sahbwa and Socotra governorates in just two days in November, leading to flash floods, devastation and the displacement of 56,000 people. More than half of those who fled their homes returned within a month, and the majority of the 23,000 people still displaced at that time were living with host families or in rented accommodation. As of 31 December 2016, 18,000 people remained displaced as a result of disasters in 15 governorates.
The patterns of displacement in Yemen include protracted displacement and dynamic patterns of movement as families flee and return in accordance to waves of violence. Some have even returned to frontlines, where their homes may be, as they are no longer able to absorb costs associated with their displacement. Unlike other major conflicts in the region, the situation in Yemen has not created large-scale cross-border movements.
In 2017, the overwhelming majority of IDPs were recorded in five governorates: Taiz, Amran, Amanat Al Asimah, Ibb and Hajjah. Many more people may have wanted to flee, but a range of physical, economic and social obstacles prevented them from doing so. The main triggers of displacement include sustained airstrikes, ground clashes and the deliberate targeting of civilians, in violation of international humanitarian law. The destruction of civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, markets, shops and water supplies has left 22.2 million people, or 76 per cent of Yemen’s population in need of humanitarian assistance. Children account for half of the displaced population and are exposed to various forms of abuse, including early marriage and systematic recruitment into armed groups.
Of the over two million IDPs in Yemen, around 77 per cent are living with host families or in rented accomodation, while others live in collective centres and spontaneous settlements. The no-camp policy adopted by the humanitarian community in Yemen makes it particularly difficult to develop a strategy for shelter solutions for IDPs and to ensure their access to basic services. Additionally, this has increased pressure on host families, who face a number of vulnerabilities themselves.
With the escalation of the crisis, IDPs face a wide range of protection needs and vulnerabilities, including a lack of shelter, a lack of safety and security, a lack of livelihood options, gender-based violence, loss of documentation, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation. About 17.8 million people are food insecure in Yemen, with 8.4 million at risk of starvation, a 24 per cent increase from last year. The food security crisis in Yemen is described as the “world’s largest man-made food security crisis”, that is driven by constraining food supply and distribution and people’s diminishing purchasing power.
IDPs living in makeshift shelters face serious health and protection risks. An estimated 19 per cent of IDPs live in public buildings or in dispersed spontaneous settlements and are confronted with significant protection risks, including harassment and gender-based violence. Coupled with the density of the displaced population, long periods of displacement have greatly increased pressure on scarce water resources in the governorates of Taiz, Al Jawf, Hajjah, Sana’a and Marib. The conflict has also devastated livelihoods and significantly weakened Yemen’s already precarious economy because of restrictions on imports and financial transactions.
The Task Force on Population Movement is one of the main data collectors operating in Yemen, alongside IOM, OCHA, UNHCR, and the Executive Unit of IDPs. In 2017, comprehensive data on IDPs became increasingly difficult to obtain due to severe access constraints to the most impacted territories, increasing political tensions, and Yemen’s out-of-camp context. Access to certain communities in the north, for example in al-Jawf governorate, and difficulties in identifying the displaced, especially in urban settings, remain major challenges to getting an accurate, holistic picture of the displacement scale and scope in Yemen.
|Displacement type||IDPs (Stock)||Return (Flow)||New Displacement (Flow)|
|Geographical disaggregation||Subnational - admin 1||Unknown||Subnational - admin 1|
|Geographical coverage||Partial coverage||Unknown||Partial coverage|
|Frequency of reporting||Every 3 months||No update||Every month|
|Disaggregation on sex||No||No||Partial|
|Disaggregation on age||No||No||No|
|Data triangulation||No Triangulation||No Triangulation||Some local triangulation|
|Data on settlement elsewhere||No||No||Partial|
|Data on returns||Partial||No||Partial|
|Data on local integration||No||No||No|
|Data on deaths||No||No||No|
|Data on births||No||No||No|
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of people displaced in the country is drawn from the latest published report by the Task Force on Population Movement (TFPM). Access to IDPs due to political insecurity and security constraints were only few of the several factors that impacted data collection in Yemen in 2017. These challenges have not diminished in time, therefore the numbers should be considered an underestimate. UNHCR monthly bulletins provided additional data with regards to specific new displacement flows throughout the year.