The Cable

Washington to Americans Stuck in Yemen: You’re on Your Own

The State Department continues to maintain that it has no plans to help evacuate the many U.S. private citizens still stranded in Yemen, stating that “to do so with U.S. government assets could put other lives at risk.”

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Russia is pulling its citizens out of war-torn Yemen. China, India, Pakistan, Algeria, and even Somalia are doing so, too. The State Department, however, is basically telling American nationals to try to stick it out in Yemen on their own — a decision that could put the lives of hundreds of U.S. citizens at risk.

The U.S. stance is particularly alarming to many Yemeni-Americans because the State Department closed its embassy in Sanaa and withdrew all diplomats and military personnel in February, ahead of the ongoing Saudi Arabian-led bombing campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who now control much of the country. The Saudi Ministry of Defense announced Tuesday that it was winding down operation “Determination Storm” and transitioning into operation “Restoration Hope,” having “successfully managed to thwart the threat on the security of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and neighboring countries through destruction of the heavy weapons and ballistic missiles seized by the Houthi militias campaign.” But it said nothing about the future for Yemen’s former Western- and Saudi-backed government, or what the new operation would actually entail.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 900 people have been killed in the conflict over the past month. Despite the rising death toll, the State Department continues to maintain that it has no plans to help evacuate the many U.S. private citizens still stranded in Yemen, stating that “to do so with U.S. government assets could put other lives at risk.”

The State Department encourages citizens in Yemen to register to receive its notifications and points out that it’s long had a travel warning in place for Yemen. Foggy Bottom has also been encouraging Americans trapped in Yemen to find “shelter in a secure location until they are able to depart safely.” A State Department spokesman on Tuesday confirmed the Department’s position hadn’t changed.

Many Yemeni-Americans, fed up with the impasse, are trying to force the government’s hand. Earlier this month, a coalition of advocacy groups behind the website StuckInYemen.com filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, demanding that they launch so-called noncombatant evacuation operations to rescue U.S. citizens from Yemen. But the government has 60 days from when the complaint was filed to respond, and the advocacy coalition worries that by then, it will be too late for many stranded citizens.

“The reality is there are travel warnings in about half the countries in the world right now,” said Nasrina Bargzie, national security and civil rights attorney for Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, a group in the coalition. The idea that the State Department would consider it acceptable to leave citizens in limbo if it had previously issued travel warnings, she said, is “pretty frightening.”

While some Americans have been able to escape through other countries’ evacuation missions, many others who want to leave still lack the logistical help to do so, according to the groups’ lawsuit.

StuckInYemen.com, which allows individuals and their family members to register stranded Americans, has now received notifications about some 600 U.S. citizens looking to leave Yemen, said Abed Ayoub, the national legal and policy director for American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, another group in the advocacy coalition. They’re among potentially thousands of Yemeni-Americans in the country for family or business who need to escape, the group says.

The State Department refusal to evacuate stranded American citizens from the increasingly dangerous country seems to be unprecedented, Bargzie said. The legal complaint notes that the United States authorized more than 80 evacuations between 2001 and 2006; more recently, it helped evacuate citizens from Egypt in 2011 during the protests that removed Hosni Mubarak from power. In 2006, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee filed a suit against the government for its failure to rapidly evacuate U.S. citizens from Lebanon when Israel began bombing the country, but the government eventually stepped up to evacuate nearly 15,000 Americans. The advocacy groups still hope that will also happen for Yemen, but so far, the outlook doesn’t seem too promising.

Meanwhile, American citizens’ chances for evacuation by other countries and groups may be running out. Several countries are winding down their evacuation operations, and the International Organization for Migration announced Tuesday that it would suspend evacuations from Yemen after three missions due to “unacceptable demands in regard to the identity of passengers to be evacuated by IOM” and worsening security conditions.

Yochi Dreazen contributed to this post.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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