I thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss the situation in Yemen with it. I had the opportunity to mention this meeting on "Morning Ireland" this morning so I hope we will have expanded interest in it. We appeared before this committee two years ago when Yemen was first on the brink of famine. It is heart-breaking that we are here again as Yemen continues to experience the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. I am delighted to be joined by my colleague, Dina El-Mamoun, who is our international head of policy and advocacy on Yemen and who lives there. Since 2015, Oxfam have been working with local partner organisations in eight governates in Yemen and we have reached more than 3 million people with water and sanitation services, cash assistance and food vouchers. This assistance is essential for mitigating the devastating effects of the protracted conflict, which is bringing new suffering and civilian damage on a daily basis.
We are now into the fourth year of the conflict and people are being pushed beyond their limits. Ms El-Mamoun will speak to the rapidly changing situation in the country itself, but first I will try to remind the committee members of the scale of the crisis we are facing. Between March 2015 and August 2018, the conflict in Yemen has led to a total of 17,062 civilian casualties.
It has forced more than 3 million people from their homes. Some 24.1 million people, or 80% of the population, need humanitarian assistance, including 14.3 million individuals who are in acute need.
Yemen is experiencing a third wave of the world's worst cholera outbreak, with two previous waves from October 2016 to March 2018. There have been more than 1.5 million suspected cholera cases, including 3,024 related deaths in Yemen since October 2016. Some 22 of the country’s 23 governorates are now affected by cholera. Without prevention measures being put in place urgently and a rapid and unhindered scale-up of the response, the outbreak will become an epidemic as the rainy season approaches.
As members will be aware, food security in Yemen is critically dependent on imports and incomes, both of which have been knowingly undermined by parties to the conflict over many months. Very little food is grown in Yemen. Approximately 90% of the country’s food has to be imported, with 70% of that coming through Hodeidah port. Actions that have obstructed food availability and accessibility include the Saudi-led coalition, disrupting food and other supplies entering Hodeidah and Salif ports by means of blockades, inspection processes, delaying of vessels or diversion. While imports of bulk foods, such as wheat, rice and sugar, are under way, containers have been blocked, which prevents the offloading of supplies of milk powder, cooking oil, medicines and other goods. Hodeidah is the most important point of entry for food, fuel and medicines needed by 20 million Yemenis in the northern governorates in order to prevent famine and a recurrence of a cholera epidemic. Any disruption of or attack on the port that results in cutting off imports means cutting off the lifeline for not just the people of Hodeidah but the entire country. It is worth emphasising that international humanitarian law, underscored by UN Security Council Resolution 2417, requires all parties to conflicts to ensure that they do not target civilians and objects necessary for food production and distribution or objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, including crops, livestock and water sources.
Yemen’s economy has been shattered. Since 2015, the economy has halved in size and very few Yemenis have any source of income. More than 80% now live below the poverty line. Salaries for many workers in the public sector have not been paid for two years, leaving many destitute. The exchange rate has faced severe shocks and has fluctuated sharply since the escalation of conflict. The central bank has struggled to ensure liquidity in the market, making it difficult for importers to bring supplies into the country. Fighting and financial constraints have led to the closure of 35% of businesses and the shrinkage of more than 51% of surviving firms. As a result, food prices have been pushed so high that essential supplies have become too expensive for most. In October 2018, retail prices of food commodities were between 73% and 178% higher than in the pre-crisis period, while the price of fuel, which is essential for distribution of supplies, had risen at an even higher rate.
Sustained undermining of food imports, availability and plummeting incomes have clear and unequivocal humanitarian consequences. Some 14 million people, or half the population of Yemen, face a clear and present danger of imminent famine, while 20 million, or two thirds of the population, are reliant on food aid in order to survive. Yemenis are resilient people, but the current situation is the worst we have seen and it keeps deteriorating. In surveys late last year of people in Taiz, southern Yemen, who had received assistance from Oxfam, 99% said the adults in the family had reduced how much they ate to give more food to their children and 98% had cut down the number of meals they ate every day. More than half said they had borrowed food from friends or relatives, while almost two thirds of people to whom we spoke said they had taken on debt. In almost all cases, this was to buy food, medicine or water.
Coping mechanisms for many Yemenis have become more and more desperate. Oxfam has spoken to families in Amran Governorate in the north of Yemen who, hungry and isolated after fleeing their homes, have been forced to marry off their daughters - in one case, the child was as young as three years old - in order to buy food and shelter to save the rest of the family. Although early marriage has long been a dire practice in Yemen, marrying off girls at such an early age in pure desperation to buy food is shocking. We know that in situations of food shortage, women eat last and least. Yemeni women face one of the world’s greatest gender-based disparities and this imbalance is clearly evident in the context of food security and nutrition. Escalating food shortages have left an estimated 1.1 million pregnant and lactating women malnourished and threaten the lives of 75,000 women who are likely to develop complications during childbirth, including the stunted growth of their newborns. Even with humanitarian assistance, women give priority to children or other family members, or use the money for other household needs. An assessment carried out after one Oxfam distribution showed that 14% of respondents from female-headed households still had a poor food consumption score compared with 6% of male-headed households. Under conditions of conflict characterised by displacement, loss of personal security, family instability and a lack of access to rights, Yemeni women and girls are exposed to many risks, including gender-based violence. A protection survey carried out in November 2018 found that women experienced the highest levels of all violence - psychological, physical and sexual – and that, overall, girls were affected more by all forms of violence than boys. We are also aware that there is likely to be vast under-reporting of sexual violence as a result of the fact that survivors face stigmatisation.
The international humanitarian response, of which we are a part, is saving lives, but it is taking place in a very challenging environment. Conflict, security constraints and the harassment of humanitarian workers are just some of the challenges faced in accessing the hardest-to-reach areas without compromising the safety and security of those we work with, our local partner organisations and our staff. The only real solution to the crisis in Yemen is political. Talks in Sweden at the beginning of December were the first since 2016 that were attended by both warring parties. This was a big first step. Despite an agreed ceasefire in the city and port of Hodeidah, however, three civilians are still killed every day. That is one person every eight hours. The international community needs to maintain pressure on all parties to the conflict in order to ensure that ceasefire agreements are honoured and that there is a quick return to negotiations. It is essential that the peace process is inclusive, with the active and meaningful participation of women, civil society and youth. While women bear the burden of war, they are not passive victims. Women are leading efforts to increase the resilience of their communities and contribute to peace-building at local level through resolving conflicts over resources such as water and land. Although gender norms are strongly conservative in Yemen, women are accepted as mediators in local conflicts among tribes and rural communities, which is a long-held tradition. Women are largely excluded from formal peace processes, however. Where they have been involved, women’s groups have described their inclusion as disappointing, representing a missed opportunity for sustainable peace. In the course of our work, we have seen the necessity of including women in peace discussions and negotiations at the early stages. When that is done, the likelihood is a far better and far more sustainable outcome in peace negotiations.
Critically, the world must stop fuelling the conflict by selling weapons for use in the war. Homes, school and hospitals, as well as our own water projects, have been repeatedly bombed. Arms sales from the US, the UK, the EU and others fuel this man-made crisis and legitimise, prolong and deepen a conflict that causes immense human suffering. US, EU and Canadian arms sales alone to the three largest coalition players in the war - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt - totalled more than $33 billion between 2015 and 2017. Since March 2015, the sale of UK arms licensed to Saudi Arabia has exceeded £4.6 billion. Oxfam supports the full and robust implementation of the arms trade treaty. The international community must refrain from sending any arms, ammunition or munitions for use in Yemen by parties to the conflict.
Ireland and Yemen are not so far apart. Ireland has long-standing diplomatic engagements and opportunities for influence in respect of Yemen, as well as strong trade ties in surrounding countries. Ireland’s new international development policy, A Better World, sets out a firm commitment to reduce humanitarian need, intensify political efforts to address root causes of conflicts, and bolster engagement in fragile contexts. We recognise the Government’s action on Yemen to date, including the participation of the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, at the high-level pledging event for Yemen last month in Geneva, and Ireland’s pledge of €5 million. The latter brings this country's support for the Yemeni people up to more than €22 million since 2012. We also recognise Ireland’s advocacy for humanitarian access in Yemen, including through resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council’s universal periodic review. To realise the values of A Better World, however, and to live up to the commitments of empathy, partnership and independence as set out in Ireland’s UN Security Council campaign, we must do more. A seat at the UN Security Council would enable Ireland to have a strengthened role in international peace and security, which we would certainly welcome. If Ireland wants to play this role, which it can do, it needs to ensure that it does all it can to deliver on a successful outcome in Yemen. There are many actions it can take in that regard.
It is critical that the Government and, specifically, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade use Ireland’s influence at EU and UN level to apply pressure on all parties to respect international humanitarian law, negotiate and maintain a nationwide ceasefire, and approach peace talks with the best interest of the Yemeni people in mind. We ask the committee to write to the Minister to request an update on diplomatic efforts made by Ireland in respect of Yemen, to request that Ireland press for the full commitment of warring parties and their backers to a ceasefire in Hodeidah, and to support the full implementation of the Stockholm agreement as pillars for moving the peace process forward. As we requested during our previous appearance before the committee, we also recommend that the Tánaiste direct his Department to use its embassy in Saudi Arabia to convene a meeting with its Saudi counterparts in order to make clear that Ireland unilaterally condemns the country’s devastating bombing campaign in Yemen at the highest level, and to reiterate the need for a comprehensive ceasefire. Oxfam has worked in Yemen for 35 years but we have never seen a humanitarian crisis on this scale. Yemenis face the triple threat of war, disease and hunger. We and the UN consider it the greatest humanitarian crisis on the planet but it just does not seem to be getting the attention required. We urge the committee to do everything it can to raise awareness and make space for it in the Irish context in order that Ireland can play its role internationally, which we believe it can do.
I thank the committee for listening to my statement. Ms El-Mamoun and I will be happy to discuss the matter further, while she can provide much more practical information about her experience on the ground.