While displacement is not a new phenomenon in Yemen, the number of people fleeing violence increased sharply in 2015 after the civil war became internationalized. 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. The UN’s humanitarian chief has warned that the country could become the worst humanitarian disaster in half a century.
The Saudi-led coalition launched an attack to retake the strategic port of Hodeidah from the Houthis in 2018, leading to significant displacement. About 252,000 new displacements were recorded last year and, by the end of the year, more than 2.3 million people were living in displacement. Due to research and data collection restrictions in Yemen, displacement figures are considered underestimates.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
What causes displacement?
Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world and has been plagued by social and political unrest since its troubled unification in 1990. It has few natural resources, weak governance, poor social services and high youth unemployment. With almost 50 per cent of the population of 26.8 million living below the poverty line as of 2014, humanitarian needs were already acute before the conflict escalated.
Half of the population, which was largely rural, had no access to safe drinking water, and three-quarters no access to safe sanitation. Since the escalation of violence in March 2015, Yemenis’ living conditions have deteriorated sharply. Gender inequality is also 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.
The increase in violence is largely attributed to the Saudi-led military intervention in the conflict, and the coalition’s land, sea and air blockades of commercial and humanitarian imports have contributed significantly to the downward spiral in living conditions. 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.
Yemen has been in political crisis since 2011, when the country’s then president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, launched a violent crackdown on demonstrators before eventually agreeing to step down. The al-Houthi movement, officially known as Ansar Allah, which champions Yemen's Zaidi Shia Muslim minority and had staged 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 heartland of Saada province and neighbouring areas. Disillusioned with the transition, many ordinary Yemenis, including Sunnis, supported the rebels and in September 2014 they entered the capital Sana’a.
The Houthi fighters reinforced their takeover of Sana’a in January 2015 when they surrounded the presidential palace and other key points, effectively placing Hadi and his cabinet under house arrest. The rebels 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 believe to receive military backing from Iran, a regional Shia power, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began a campaign of airstrikes in an effort to restore Hadi's government.
Taking advantage of the subsequent power vacuum, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) expanded its presence over vast parts of the south of the country in 2015, and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also began launching attacks, mainly targeting sites affiliated with the al-Houthi movement and AQAP. Both groups continue to carry out attacks, mainly in the south, but do not control territory. To add to this complex mix in an already heavily destabilised country, new groups have emerged, each with their own loyalties and agenda, to form loose alliances with one side or the other.
More than two million people were newly displaced in 2015, when the crisis was at its height. Since then, hundreds of thousands of new displacements are recorded every year, however our figures are likely to be gross underestimates, given the access constraints on data collection inside the country. In 2018, about 252,000 new displacements were confirmed, including about 64,000 from Hodeida as parties to the conflict began preparing for a battle to take the port city in June. An agreement signed in Stockholm, Sweden in December between the Houthis and the internationally recognized Yemeni government put a halt to the fighting for now. However, many details of the agreement are yet to be ironed out, and exchanges of fire threaten the fragile ceasefire.
Sudden-onset disasters also strike Yemen every year, in particular the southern governorates. For example, Cyclones Megh and Chapala brought the equivalent of five years of rainfall to Hadramaut, Sahbwa and Socotra governorates in just two days in November 2015, leading to flash floods, devastation and 56,000 new displacements. In 2018, two cyclones hit the south of the country in May and November, leading to 18,000 new displacements.
Where and how do people move?
Displacement patterns in Yemen include protracted displacement and multiple and cyclical movement as families flee and return with the ebb and flow of violence. Some have even returned to their home areas near frontlines in the conflict, because they were no longer able to absorb costs associated with their displacement. Unlike other major conflicts in the region, the situation in Yemen has not triggered large-scale cross-border movements.
The overwhelming majority of new displacements in 2018 were recorded in five governorates: Amanat Al Asimah, Hajjah, Hudaidah, Sa’ada and Taiz. Many more people may have wanted to flee, but a range of physical, economic and social obstacles will have prevented them from doing so. Children account for half of the country's IDPs, and they are exposed to various forms of abuse, including recruitment into armed groups and early marriage.
Around 74 per cent of IDPs live with host families or in rented accommodation, and others in collective centres and spontaneous settlements. The humanitarian community has adopted a no-camp policy in Yemen, which makes it difficult to develop a strategy for shelter solutions and ensure access to basic services. It has also increased pressure on host families, who face a range of vulnerabilities themselves.
What is life like for IDPs and communities hosting them?
IDPs face a wide range of protection needs and vulnerabilities, including a lack of shelter, security and livelihood options, gender-based violence, loss of documentation, food insecurity and limited access to healthcare, education, water and sanitation. More than 20 million people are considered to be food insecure, nearly 10 million of which are suffering from extreme hunger. For the first time, about 238,000 people have been confirmed as being in Phase 5 on the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification scale (catastrophic hunger). Needs have intensified across all sectors, leaving millions of Yemenis solely reliant on humanitarian assistance to survive.
IDPs living in hosting sites, including public building and collective centres face serious health and protection risks. About 83 per cent of the displaced are women and children and internally displaced women and girls, in particular, are at a higher risk of protection and health threats, as they suffer most from lack of privacy and access to basic services, especially in overcrowded collective centres.
Where does data on displacement come from and what are the main challenges?
Sources for IDMC’s estimate for new displacement and total number of IDPs include UNHCR-led Protection Cluster and IOM-DTM as well as from the IOM-led Task Force on Population Movement (TFPM) which uses data from IOM Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), UNHCR Population Movement Tracking (PMT) and the National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Recovery (NAMCHA).
Comprehensive displacement data is difficult to obtain because of primarily bureaucratic access constraints. Increasing political tensions and the no-camp policy constituted further obstacles, and difficulties in identifying IDPs, particularly in urban areas, also continues to pose a significant challenge.
IDMC’s estimate of the total number of IDPs in Yemen corresponds to people reported as displaced by conflict by the Task Force on Population Movement (TFPM) in its 17th report, published in August 2018. TPFM includes data from IOM DTM and ETT, UNHCR population movement tracking and the National Authority for the Management and Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Recovery (NAMCHA).
IDMC’s estimate of the number of new displacements in 2018 was calculated from data reported by the Protection Cluster and IOM DTM and ETT. IDMC’s estimates of the total number of IDPs and the number of new displacements are approximate and conservative given limited access to displaced people and the fact that data collection did not continue until December 2018. For example, the TFPM’s data covering Al Jawf governorate was not updated after January 2018.
IDMC accounts for more a million returnees reported by TFPM but whose conditions were unknown as having achieved partial solutions.