Yemen: Seeking alternatives to camps as the crisis grows

9 January, 2012
Saleh Ali Showi pictured in front of his family tent at Al Mazreq camp, Haradh. Credit: Adel Yahya
Saleh Ali Showi pictured in front of his family tent at Al Mazreq camp, Haradh. Credit: Adel Yahya

Saleh Ali Showi and his family have lived in a camp in Al Mazraq in Hajjah Governorate, northern Yemen, since August 2009. They were forced to abandon their home after fighting broke out between the Government and Houthi-led separatist fighters.

It is a difficult life—one made even more complicated as Mr. Showi, 75 years old, is diabetic and regularly needs insulin injections.

“I enter a state of unconsciousness if I don't get a shot,” he says. “I may skip a meal but cannot skip insulin.”

Mr. Showi receives his insulin from a camp clinic, previously run by Médecins Sans Frontières Spain and handed over to the Adventist Relief Agency (ADRA) at the end of 2011. Without the clinic’s help, he would not be able to treat himself. “I don't have money to buy a shot,” he explains. Each injection costs US$12.

Money is scarce. There are few employment prospects, and many camp residents are dependent on handouts. Throughout the region, many communities rely entirely on humanitarian aid.

On days when Mr. Showi feels unwell, the whole family suffers. “He will not allow us to sleep,” says Khairya, Mr. Showi’s 65-year-old wife. The family lives in a large tent, with five grandchildren. Their mother, a daughter to Mr. Showi, died of illness last year.

Mr. Showi’s family used to live in Malahet in Sa’ada Governorate, but fled their home during fighting between Government forces and the Houthi. This is a long-running conflict that has witnessed six rounds of fighting since 2004. Today, Mr. Showi is one of an estimated 300,000 people displaced by conflict in northern Yemen.

There are three main camps for displaced people in northern Yemen, all located in Hajjah, housing about 20,000 displaced people. The situation they face is desperate. Many more displaced people live among friends and family, or in informal settlements scattered across the north.

“I have met families living in Al-Mazraq camp where, despite the best efforts of aid agencies, I noticed a deterioration in the situation compared to what I saw a year ago,” said the UN’s Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Catherine Bragg, following a November 2011 visit.

In a conservative Muslim society such as Yemen, living in close proximity to strangers in a camp environment is culturally problematic, and undermines the dignity of many families.

Camps present a host of protection challenges, exposing girls and women to threats of sexual violence and abuse. Reporting on sexual violence, however, is a challenge because the subject is taboo among most communities in Yemen.

Camps are also expensive to construct and maintain, and can increase the risk of disease. These challenges have highlighted the need to seek alternative solutions in southern Yemen. Here, fighting between Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, other Islamist groups and Government forces has displaced about 100,000 people.

No camps have been set up in the south, and most of the displaced live among host families, or in schools and other open places. This has affected schooling, however.

OCHA has played a crucial role in coordinating meetings between aid agencies and the Government to discuss the risks associated with the creation of camps, and to identify alternative solutions that are in the best interests of the displaced people and the communities hosting them.

Needs are projected to increase this year, and OCHA expects to play an even greater advocacy role. According to the 2012 Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, released on 14 December 2011, an estimated $447 million will be required to meet the needs of about 4 million people.

“Camps are not a good option,” said Tareq Talahma, Humanitarian Affairs Officer at OCHA Yemen. “They work as a pull factor, increasing the reliance of displaced persons on humanitarian aid and constraining their ability to develop exit strategies for their future.”

Reporting by Erich Ogoso