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Yemen Is ‘Going Completely Down the Drain,’ Says U.N. Refugees Chief

Confronted with a new crisis for refugees in Yemen, the UNHCR chief is also grappling with how to get Europe to embrace a unified asylum policy in the wake of last weekend's deadly Mediterranean shipwreck.

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Refugees call to their relatives as they arrive aboard a boat at the port of Djibouti after crossing the Gulf of Aden to flee Yemen on April 14, 2015. Refugees from war-torn Yemen described the terror of intense airstrikes, the horror of the airstrikes that pounded their homes in Yemen, as they arrive in the Horn of Africa, where aid agencies are fearing an influx of people. AFP PHOTO / TONY KARUMBA (Photo credit should read TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of refugees are fleeing Yemen every day to escape a country that the United Nations says is on “the brink of total disaster” as Saudi Arabian airstrikes continue to pound Houthi rebels who have seized control of Sanaa and other swaths of Yemen.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres is in Washington this week to lobby the Obama administration to do more to help protect millions of people who have been forced from their homes amid insurgencies and civil war that have engulfed the Middle East.

Compared to the humanitarian emergencies in Iraq and Syria, where “everything is moving in the worst direction,” the toll in Yemen is relatively small, Guterres said in an interview with Foreign Policy. Still, he stressed the situation in the impoverished country is deteriorating and could erupt into a major crisis if fighting continues.

The sectarian war in Yemen, which pits Shiite Houthi rebels against Sunni leaders backed by Riyadh, is the newest tragedy to confront an already strapped UNHCR, which was forced to cut $200 million from its budget this year because of the strengthening dollar value against weakening currencies in donor nations that cannot match past contributions.

Guterres said “very small numbers” of refugees — roughly 2,000 to 3,000 each day — are fleeing Yemen, mostly through the Gulf of Aden, seeking shelter in Somaliland and Djibouti. Some head to Saudi Arabia, although Guterres said it’s unclear how many.

And as many as 150,000 refugees remain in Yemen but are looking for new, safe places to live, he said. That is in addition to an estimated 300,000 internally displaced Yemenis who needed help even before the new front in the war surfaced last month.

“The country is going completely down the drain, and I don’t think it is good for anybody to have Yemen completely collapse and in total chaos,” Guterres told FP in an interview late Wednesday afternoon. “And that is the risk in the immediate future.”

A cease-fire appears nowhere in sight, although U.S. officials have pleaded for a political resolution to bring peace and humanitarian aid to Yemen’s refugees. Guterres said UNHCR workers can deliver food and supplies through only one entry point to Yemen — the Sanaa airport — as seaports close or are otherwise deemed too risky.

Though Washington is far more focused on the crises in the Middle East — and North and East Africa — the rest of the world is watching how Europe will respond to last weekend’s Mediterranean Sea shipwreck of African refugees fleeing via Libya. UNHCR has termed the disaster, which killed more than 800, the deadliest such incident ever recorded.

European Union leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday were expected to embrace reforms to prevent similar tragedies in the future. But the London-based Guardian newspaper reported that the EU proposal would refuse entry to most refugees and allow only 5,000 to resettle in Europe. As many as 150,000 crossed the Mediterranean last year.

Guterres wouldn’t say so directly, but sounded doubtful that the EU plan would address the heart of the problem: How to help refugees who are desperately searching for better lives. “It’s not enough, deterrence. You need to offer alternatives to people,” he said.

He called for more “robust” search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterrean and a tougher crackdown on smuggling operations that profit from refugees’ desperation.

Most importantly, Guterres said, Europe needs to adopt a continent-wide asylum policy to alleviate demands of nations that have shouldered the bulk of the refugee influx. Germany and Sweden, for example, have taken in far more Syrian refugees than any other European countries over the last four years, and Italy remains a first point of entry for migrants crossing through the Mediterranean.

Guterres said Europe should consider more flexible visa policies and enhanced resettlement opportunities for incoming refugees — neither of which likely would be embraced under the EU’s reported plans.

“There is no easy fix to this,” Guterres said. “There is no one single measure that can solve all problems.”

Photo credit: Tony Karumba / Getty / Stringer

Lara Jakes is the deputy managing editor of news for Foreign Policy magazine and a former war correspondent, Baghdad bureau chief and award-winning senior national security and diplomatic writer for The Associated Press. She's a 1995 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband. @larajakesFP

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