Tens of thousands of Yemenis stranded by Saudi blockade of capital’s airport

Some 32,000 in rebel-held north not able to travel outside country for life-saving treatment

Tens of thousands of Yemenis in dire need of medical care which their war-ravaged country cannot provide have been stranded by the Saudi blockade of the capital’s international airport, aid agencies say.

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and CARE have reported that 32,000 people in the rebel Houthi-held north have not been able to travel outside Yemen for potentially life-saving treatment.

"It's like a hostage situation that has lasted for five years," NRC acting country director Isaac Ooko said. "Patients are trapped in Yemen even where there is a route to save them. For thousands of sick Yemenis who need urgent medical treatment abroad, these last five years have amounted to a death sentence."

In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition launched a war on the Houthis and in August 2016 closed Sanaa’s airport, the country’s main airport, to commercial flights. The NRC and CARE said this has trapped “millions of Yemenis in a war zone and [prevented] the free movement of humanitarian and commercial goods.”

The closure of the airport coupled with Saudi restrictions on goods entering the north through Houthi-held Hodeida port has nearly halted the entry of medicine, medical supplies and equipment, causing prices to rise, making healthcare unaffordable for most Yemenis, and contributing to the unravelling of the healthcare system, the NRC and CARE said.

Consequently, “thousands of Yemenis with long-term health conditions such as cancer, kidney, liver and blood conditions have died while waiting for treatment unavailable in Yemen”, they said.

Proposed measures

Houthi-appointed Sanaa airport director Khaled al-Shayef said: "There are international demands to open Sanaa airport as a result of the catastrophic humanitarian repercussions of its continued closure, [but] the [Saudi-dominated] coalition countries are still insisting on linking this to other files, including military and political ones."

The Houthis demand an end to the blockade on Sanaa airport and restrictions on Hodeida imports as the price of a ceasefire and negotiations. So far, the Saudis have proposed partial and conditional measures, which have been rejected by the Houthis.

The UN appointed as its new Yemen envoy Swedish diplomat Hans Grunberg, his country's former ambassador to Yemen, to restart talks on a ceasefire and an end to the six-year war, but the Houthis have said there is no point in renewing negotiations at this time.

In response to the deterioration of the situation in Yemen, the US announced a $165 million (€140 million) donation for World Food Programme assistance.

At least 80 per cent of Yemen’s population of 30 million require humanitarian aid, including 14.3 million who are in acute need. The WFP provides monthly sustenance to more than 11 million people with US-provided food.

The UN estimates that 233,000 have been killed and four million displaced by the war.

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen

Michael Jansen contributes news from and analysis of the Middle East to The Irish Times