In Yemen, Targeting of Aid Workers Risks Unraveling Crisis

Houthi rebels’ attacks on aid workers could deepen the country’s humanitarian crisis.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Yemeni civilians receive food aid in the northern district of Abs, under the control of Iran-backed Houthi rebels, on June 24, 2018. (Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)
Yemeni civilians receive food aid in the northern district of Abs, under the control of Iran-backed Houthi rebels, on June 24, 2018. (Essa Ahmed/AFP/Getty Images)

Representatives of international aid and humanitarian organizations operating in war-wracked Yemen say they are increasingly being targeted by the Iran-backed Houthi rebels on a scale that could jeopardize efforts to assist millions of civilians caught in what is already the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Aid workers told Foreign Policy that they are facing threats of attack in the areas controlled by the Houthis, which includes western parts of the country and Yemen’s capital, Sanaa.

Members of the group detained one humanitarian worker, Awfa al-Naami, in late January and held her for weeks, releasing her on Feb. 16 after sustained diplomatic pressure. Naami is the country manager for Saferworld, a U.K.-based nonprofit operating in Yemen. Her detention rattled other aid officials and stoked fears that the group would stage similar abductions. (Saferworld declined to comment for this story.)

The Houthis are likely testing the international community to see how much harassment and intimidation they can get away with, according to two aid workers. The two spoke to FP on condition of anonymity, fearing for their own safety and that of their colleagues.

They’re continuing to push the boundaries,” one of them said.

If aid groups continue to be targeted and threatened, they could be forced to scale back or even shutter humanitarian and peace-building operations, which include delivering food and medical supplies and conducting programming on education and women’s participation in civil society. Any decrease in assistance could exacerbate the country’s humanitarian crisis.

Aid is “one of the things keeping millions alive right now,” said Scott Paul, who works on Yemen issues for Oxfam America, which operates in the country. “If things continue to go on as they are, principled assistance could be endangered. That puts millions at risk.”

Rasha Mohamed, a Yemen researcher at Amnesty International, said humanitarian workers should have “unhindered and unimpeded access” to civilians in war zones.

The conflict in Yemen, now in its fourth year, has pitted the Houthi rebels against the Yemeni government backed by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Sunni Muslim-majority countries. Tens of thousands of people have died in the war, many in bombing campaigns by the Saudi coalition, which is supported by the U.S. military. Millions of Yemenis have been pushed to the brink of famine.

In Washington, the conflict has sparked a fierce showdown between President Donald Trump’s administration and Congress—including many prominent Republican lawmakers—over whether the United States should withdraw its support from the Saudi-led coalition.

The United States provides weapons sales to some countries in the coalition, as well as intelligence and surveillance support. Late last year, the United States halted air-to-air refueling support for the Saudi bombing campaign following mounting pressure from Congress.

Saudi Arabia has also been accused of blocking humanitarian shipments at key access points, including the port of Hodeida, where much of the country’s food and humanitarian supplies arrive.

In recent days, Houthi fighters and Yemeni forces have agreed to pull back from the Red Sea port as part of a U.N.-brokered peace arrangement, potentially paving the way for an influx of sorely-needed aid.

Some 63,500 Yemenis are facing famine, according to analysis released last month by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a tool used by the United Nations and a consortium of government and aid agencies to measure food insecurity around the world. Meanwhile, 15.9 million people—more than half of the country’s population—remain severely food insecure even with humanitarian and food assistance. Those numbers could skyrocket if humanitarian assistance is further impeded.

The targeting of aid workers in Yemen is not new, but it has escalated recently. Humanitarian officials who have worked in the country say they have faced mainly harassment and other impediments to delivering aid but now fear being detained or killed.

Several factors account for the escalation, according to aid workers and experts. One is that the Houthis are using humanitarian access as leverage to enrich themselves and consolidate their power. In a country where more than 80 percent of the population relies on some form of humanitarian assistance daily, the side that controls aid access wields immense political power.

“Humanitarian assistance gives income and aid to families of young boys who could otherwise go fight,” one humanitarian official said.

Another reason is that the Houthis appear to be slowly losing the war, and detaining humanitarian workers could give them a bargaining chip. “The current pattern, including the arrest of humanitarians by Houthis, is indicative of them trying to gain an upper hand in peace negotiations,” said Mohamed of Amnesty International.

The tactic of targeting and detaining aid workers has created a rift within the Houthis, according to experts and aid workers. Some Houthi hard-liners, worried about international interference, see outside aid as a tool for Western influence or infiltration by spies. Others in the group “are more concerned with maintaining relationships with donors especially and keeping the flow of international aid and money coming,” one aid worker said.

Ultimately, targeting aid workers could backfire for the Houthis. “Humanitarian aid is the only thing keeping the population semisatisfied and not rising up against the Houthis,” Mohamed said.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer