The Man-Made Health Crisis in Yemen Cannot Wait for the End of the War: What Can Humanitarian Actors Do?

In 2017, only a few years into a brutal civil war, Yemen reported a cholera outbreak of one million cases, more than half of which were children, making it the worst outbreak in history. At the time, Yemen was already in the midst of what was considered a dire humanitarian crisis, with more than 20 million citizens affected. A year later, the situation has become even more critical, with the United Nations warning of “the worst famine in 100 years” within the next few months if the war continues. Many more Yemenis have died from lack of access to basic needs, such as clean water, food, medical care, and sanitation, than fighting.

Yemen was already considered one of the poorest countries in the world before the war, with low rankings on all indicators of human development. However, the war has completely devastated the nation and the health of its citizens. Multiple outbreaks of infectious disease such as cholera and malaria, high rates of food insecurity and malnutrition, tens of thousands of trauma-related injuries, and widespread mental distress have exhausted the healthcare system. Almost 80% of Yemeni children reported symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, an exceedingly high rate even when compared to other conflict-affected nations. Healthcare workers, many of whom have been unpaid for months or years, have been kidnapped, harassed, and killed, while hospitals have been directly attacked and bombed. Medical facilities are left with barely functional equipment, empty supply shelves, and sometimes no medical staff at all. One article detailed how the grandmothers of an infant born four months premature brought him to a hospital where they found no physicians, who had all walked out in protest the previous day after one of them was beaten up by one of the hospital guards. The grandmothers attempted to place the infant into an incubator themselves, but both machines were broken.

In April 2018, as long-term wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and South Sudan rage on, as a probable Rohingya genocide in Myanmar goes into its second year, and as natural disasters strike with increasing frequency and strength around the world, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called Yemen the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. The International Rescue Committee reports that 16 million people (almost three quarters of the country’s population) cannot access basic medical care, with more than half of the country’s already limited health facilities destroyed. What is left of the health system is Yemen is almost entirely sustained by contributions of medicines, supplies, and money by international donors. An estimated 9.5 million people were provided some form of medical intervention by the WHO and their partners in 2017 alone. However, the politics of the conflict have rendered even this emergency care inconsistent and unreliable. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has occasionally had to cease providing services in some parts of the country due to sustained attacks on their facilities and staff by both Houthi fighters and Saudi warplanes. An intermittent Saudi blockade on Yemen’s ports has prevented humanitarian agencies from bringing in food, medicines, and fuel, and even when supplies can enter the country, distribution networks are insecure due to airstrikes and combatants. Like many of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, the devastating circumstances are almost entirely man-made. It is not lack of money or resources that has brought Yemen to this point- the entirety of the budget that the Yemen Ministry of Health proposed for 2018 amounts to just three days of what Saudi Arabia alone spends on the war campaign.

Yemen would not be the first country to see the health and well-being of its citizens used as a bargaining chip in an intractable conflict. Alex de Waal, a professor at Tufts University and the Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation, called these types of man-made famines and humanitarian emergencies “economic war,” which is much more difficult to classify under international humanitarian law than a violent bombing campaign or overt starvation tactics. “The coalition air strikes are not killing civilians in large numbers but they might be destroying the market and that kills many, many more people,” he told The New Yorker. Couple destroyed markets with ruined medical facilities and it is clear that the quality of life of human civilians will be devastated for the long term. This is by no means a new wartime strategy. Perpetrators try to bring their enemy -combatants and civilians who are in any way affiliated with them- to the brink of humanitarian desperation to force concessions.

What is needed is immediate and meaningful action on the part of the actors involved in the war as well as the international community that is both providing the weapons and aid that sustain the conflict. Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, outlined three requests to ease the humanitarian burden in the country. First, he called for guaranteed safe access throughout all of Yemen so that aid agencies can provide goods and services. Second, he demanded an end to all attacks on health workers and facilities. Lastly, he insisted that civilian health workers who remain in Yemen must be paid for their vital services. Similarly, a report by the International Peace Institute recommends that the international community, especially the UN Security Council, enforce compliance to international humanitarian laws and norms. Humanitarian actors must also work to coordinate their responses by sharing data, involving local stakeholders, and collectively pushing against blockade efforts. While meeting immediate needs is the clear priority, prevention and long-term health capacity building must also be pursued to both avert widespread catastrophe and prepare for the Yemen that will remain after the war ends. None of these actions must wait for a political end to the war, which is the only way to truly protect civilian life and ensure basic access to the human rights of food, water, sanitation, and health. However, these actions can push back against efforts by all sides of the conflict to use the health and well-being of Yemen’s citizens as pawns in the achievement of their aims.

 

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Public Health and Migration

Throughout history humans have been on the move, migrating due to famine, war, persecution, and to find a better life. In a new age of “zero tolerance” policies and deeming humans “illegal” it is important to understand that how global policy defines someone matters.

There are many terms for populations that are fleeing disasters and we have to understand globally accepted terms for populations on the move.

    1. Asylum-seekers are people “whose request for sanctuary has yet to be processed”. Every nation has their own asylum system to determine who qualifies for protection and how they request this protection. If the petition for protection does not meet the host country’s criteria the individual may be deported to their home country.
    2. Internally displaced people have not crossed any borders to seek safety but have moved to another location within their home country seeking safety or shelter.
    3. Refugees are people who are forced to flee their home country in order to seek safety from conflict or persecution. This group of people are protected under international law and are not to be sent back to the situation where their safety is at risk.
    4. Migrants are people who choose to move for work, education, family unification, etc. These people can go back to their home country and continue to be protected by their home country government.
    5. Undocumented migrant is a person who has entered a country without proper documentation, or their immigration status expired while in the host country and they have not renewed their status, or they were denied legal entry/immigration into their host country but have remained in the host country.
    6. Statelessness is someone who does not have a nationality. Individuals can be born stateless or become stateless due to nationality laws which discriminate against certain genders, ethnicities, or religions, or the emergence or dissolving of countries.

These international definitions are important, because it determines if, how, and when the international community can respond to crisis situations. A large caveat is that due to national sovereignty under international law a nation must request that international organizations like UNHCR provide international assistance to these particular communities. If nations do not request assistance or reject assistance then these populations are left without any sort of protection leaving them vulnerable and isolated, as seen with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The international community has also seen the inhumane treatment of people seeking protection to include isolated detention on islands such as is currently used in Australia.

No matter how the international community defines these populations, they face poor health outcomes due to disease, economic stress, and trauma. Examples include:

  • An increase in child brides among Syrian and Rohingya refugee populations. This in turn affects infant and maternal mortality rates as well as the woman’s future economic prospects.
  • Malnutrition of both mother and child leading to increased death rates for children under five and stunting of growth in children that survive. This is currently being seen in Yemen.
  • Decreased breastfeeding rates due to maternal stress, disease, and separation from familial groups/support systems. An increase in breastmilk substitutes in refugee or displaced persons camps is also an issue that goes against international humanitarian policies.
  • During the Mediterranean refugee crisis the international community witnessed large groups of people risking their lives on overfilled boats that often sank, causing large scale loss of life. These refugees then faced xenophobia, closed borders, and detention upon their arrival.
  • Currently in the United States there has been an increase in detaining families and child migrants from Latin American countries for an indeterminate amount of time. Organizations like American Academy of Pediatrics have begun to discuss long term effects this type of detention has on child and adolescent health outcomes such as: high risk of psychological stress that may lead to anxiety and depression due to separation and forced detention, suicidal ideations, victims of assault by other children in these detention centers, or sexual assaults from other detainees or employees at these facilities.
  • In South America sovereign nations have closed their borders or placed restrictive regulations on Venezuelan migrants seeking food, shelter, and basic medical care for their families amid a massive economic crisis. Not only do these migrants face arduous journeys, but they also face poor health outcomes like malnutrition due to starvation, and the potential for contracting diseases due to poor sanitary conditions, and consuming non-potable water.
  • Migrants are a vulnerable population who can succumb to human trafficking and the modern slave trade along their migration routes. Migrants that are caught up in human trafficking often face abuse (mental and physical), serious injury from due to extreme work conditions, and exposure to communicable diseases from overcrowded and unsanitary living environments.   

Humans take immense risks to seek safety and new opportunities that they did not have in their home country. As an international public health community, whether we work in crisis situations or not, we must make it a priority to treat all humans in a humane manner. Health is a human right, and should be guaranteed for all.  

 

A Highlight from National Public Health Week: North Dakota State University’s “New Perspective on Refugees Roundtable”

Every April, the public health community celebrates National Public Health Week.  National Public Health Week is a time in which we recognize the amazing contributions of public health professionals and highlight the pressing public health issues important to improving our nation’s health. This year’s National Public Health Week theme was Changing our Future Together.

IH Section Councilor Mark Strand organized a roundtable entitled A New Perspective on Refugees in the Community: Changing our Future Together at North Dakota State University where he is a professor. 40 attendees from 12 countries participated in this National Public Health Week event which was held on April 3rd. Attendees learned many things they didn’t know before:

(1) At least one member of the family is working within 6 months of arriving in the U.S.

(2) Over an adult’s first 20 years here, a refugee pays approximately $21,000 more in taxes than they receive in social service benefits.

(3) There is no evidence for increased crime rates among refugees.

(4) There are many positive impacts resettled refugees make on their new communities.

Visit their Facebook post for a look at some of the photos from their event:  https://www.facebook.com/ndsu.chp/posts/10160362153045694

Share your National Public Health Week highlights with us for a chance to be featured on our blog!