Hunger haunts millions across Yemen and Syria

Ibrahim and Aisha fled from the outskirts of Aleppo in Syria. They now live in an informal settlement of Syrian refugees in the town of Chekka in the north of Lebanon. Photo by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Conflict in the Middle East has driven countless families from their homes. Now, many face futures of grave uncertainty.

After months of fighting, millions of people in Yemen are now staggering down the slow road to starvation, and they are not the only Middle Easterners on that crowded way.

Across Syria, where nearly five years of brutal conflict has displaced more than 11 million people, hunger and malnutrition are stalking families in besieged areas and beyond. The UN estimates more than 400,000 people are trapped in a number of communities, sometimes facing horrific consequences, including, reportedly, death from starvation.

Recently, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reported that more than 14 million Yemenis are facing food insecurity—a 12 percent jump since June. In a country that imports up to 90 percent of its food, all the conditions are present for the current crisis to flare into a famine.

“The ongoing fighting, indiscriminate attacks on civilians by both sides, the sieges and the restrictions on commercial food imports and other goods means more than half Yemen’s population is now critically hungry and in urgent need of support,” said Josephine Hutton, Oxfam’s regional program manager. “People desperately need food and water. They need medicine and health services. They need aid that can reach them. But ultimately, they need the conflict to end so they can put their lives together before it is too late.”

Restrictions on food imports coupled with fuel shortages since the conflict escalated in March of last year have caused prices to soar. And making matters worse, little of Yemen is arable and farmers grow food on only a small percentage of that land.

" We need peace, and I wish I could get food for my little daughter Baian," said Muhsena. She and her daughter fled a camp in Yemen after it was attacked. Photo by Hind Al-Eryani/Oxfam

‘One of the worst’ in Yemen

In December, Sajjad Mohamed Sajid, Oxfam’s country director in Yemen, described the severe conditions in the city of Taiz where Oxfam and its local partners have been working since August to relieve some of the hardship.

“The situation in Taiz city is one of the worst we’ve seen across Yemen so far, with civilians suffering from the worst impacts of ground war as well as bombing,” said Sajid. “Vital supplies are running out in the city and people are unable to flee as they have no fuel and no place to go. They’re trapped in what is essentially becoming an uninhabitable city.”

Across the country, an estimated three million children are now malnourished and about 20 million people cannot safely get clean water.

Oxfam is working to rehabilitate the damaged water infrastructure in the besieged districts of Al Madafer, Al Qahira, and elsewhere in Al Hawban, Salah, and Maouiah districts in Taiz city. With generators, water tanks, pipes, and other equipment, our goal is to ensure that more than 200,000 people trapped by fighting can get clean water at regular intervals. The supply is essential to ensure the health of families and to stave off diarrhea, which is particularly dangerous when people are already weakened by lack of food.

Elsewhere in southern Yemen, Oxfam is providing a local water authority in Aden governate with the equipment needed to pump clean water to 800,000 residents. And in the northern governates of Amran, Hajjah, and Al Hodeidah, Oxfam is providing clean water to nearly 350,000 people affected by the conflict.

Ada Moussa, 36, from Qamishli in Syria, waits to board a bus with her children after registering for a 72-hour travel permit in a migrant and refugee centrer in Preševo, Serbia. Photo by Sam Tarling/Oxfam

Human and social costs in Syria

Speaking to the UN Security Council in late January, Stephen O’Brien described a grim “new normal” in Syria. O’Brien is the under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator.

“Every time we think we have reached the nadir of human suffering in this crisis, it continues to sink deeper and deeper before our eyes,” he said. “The recent pictures of emaciated, starving children in the besieged town of Madaya seemingly shocked the collective conscience of the world.”

But that’s not the worst of it.

“To be frank,” said O’Brien, “the situation in Madaya is only the tip of the iceberg. More and more people are living in areas that are under siege or are hard to reach than ever before.” He estimated that 4.6 million people are in hard-to-reach areas, and of that number 486,700 people are living in besieged areas.

“The continued use of siege and starvation as a weapon of war is reprehensible,” said O’Brien.

For Syrians who have been able to flee the relentless fighting and seek safety in other countries—more than 4.5 million people, about half of them under the age of 17, are now refugees—their future is no more certain.

Despite the profound needs of families on the move, many countries have offered aid funding and resettlement opportunities that amount to little more than token gestures. Oxfam is calling on rich nations to provide their fair share of support, especially in comparison to all that Syria’s neighbors have already done. Lebanon and Jordan, for instance, now host nearly two million of the registered refugees.

“With no prospect of returning home soon, refugees are stuck between a rock and a hard place: receiving less aid, and unable to sustain themselves without the right to work or valid residency permits,” said Oxfam’s Andy Baker. “They are forced into debt to pay rent and buy food, they reduce the numbers of daily meals, and they remove their children from school to send them to work. Refugees are becoming increasingly vulnerable.”

Millions of refugees – many of them children – are seeking security in other Middle East countries and beyond. Oxfam is helping people get the essential supplies they need and working to provide clean water and sanitation to protect public health.

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