The biggest famine in decades is looming in Yemen

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This step could be for devastating consequences for Yemen: US President Trump is considering putting the Houthi rebels on the terror list. Humanitarian workers are sounding the alarm – the situation is becoming more and more threatening.

On some days, Mohammed Mugni and his wife skip meals entirely in order to at least pay their children’s rent and school fees. For the couple from North Yemen, breakfast and dinner will consist of tea and biscuits, Mugni tells the news site New Humanitarian. They would have eliminated expensive foods such as fruit, cheese and fish entirely. And meat? “A rare commodity that we can only dream of,” says Mugni.

Three quarters of the population live in poverty

In Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula, what observers describe as the “perfect storm” has been brewing: an armed conflict that now has 128,000 war dead and 131,000 other victims who died of a lack of food or poor health care. According to World Bank estimates, three quarters of the population live in poverty. In addition, there is a collapsed economy, cholera, scarce drinking water, floods and an impending famine – not to mention the corona pandemic.

Of all things, Donald Trump could turn this very poor state into the plaything of his foreign policy in his final weeks as US President. Trump plans to classify the Yemeni Houthi rebels as a terrorist organization before the end of his term in office on January 20, writes the magazine “Foreign Policy”, citing diplomats. Such a move against the powerful Shiite militia has been under discussion for months. Now it could become Trump’s tinder in a “scorched earth policy,” the magazine quoted a diplomat as saying.

“Humanitarian aid could become illegal”

The United Nations and humanitarian workers are sounding the alarm. Because the “supporters of God” (Ansar Allah), as the Houthis officially call themselves, rule large parts of the country and have in fact established a state within a state in northern Yemen. 70 to 80 percent of the population of Yemen live in areas controlled by the Houthis. If the Houthis land on the US terrorist list, the work of organizations such as the World Food Program, Care, Oxfam or the UN refugee agency there would be difficult or impossible.

Yemen: Houthi rebels shout political slogans. (Source: Hani Al-Ansi / dpa)

“I could be criminalized or prosecuted for simple humanitarian aid,” says Sultana Begum, who works for the Norwegian Refugee Aid (NRC) in the Yemeni capital Sanaa. “Humanitarian work in Yemen could actually become illegal.” The NRC and other organizations have to negotiate with the Houthis to bring food, water or medicine into the country and to move around safely.

USA sees Houthi rebels as Iran’s henchmen

The flow of money, gasoline and food from abroad – Yemen imports 90 percent of its food – could also dry up and bring the famine closer. Merchants, banks, suppliers and insurance companies could suspend their business out of concerns about US sanctions. The remittances from relatives who live as migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, for example, which are essential for survival, would also be cut. Other states could also suspend their aid payments. Of the $ 3.4 billion needed for humanitarian aid in 2020, more than half is still missing.

Donald Trump couldn’t care much about any of this. The US sees the Houthi rebels as Iran’s stooges, who must be put in their place with a policy of “maximum pressure”. Reaching out to the terrorist list could make him seem strong and determined in his final weeks in office in the fight against Tehran and its allies. And it would be a kind of farewell gift to Saudi Arabia, which regards Iran as an archenemy and which is fighting the Houthis in Yemen. These had recently intensified their attacks on Saudi Arabia.

Humanitarian workers prepare for emergencies

Sure, the terror rating could help freeze the Houthis’ fortunes and dry up some of the sources of income for their brutal war. This would only prolong the war, write the analysts of the International Crisis Group. In extremely tough negotiations, the UN special envoy Martin Griffiths tried for months to build trust between the government and the rebels. With the announcement from Washington, it would quickly fizzle out again. Retaliatory strikes by the Houthis would be almost certain.

Humanitarian workers are already preparing for an emergency. The UN reportedly evacuated some US workers from Yemen to protect them from the Houthis. The NRC and other organizations are hoping for an exemption from the US government should the Houthis end up on the terrorist list. But applying for this “General License” could take months.

Humanitarian aid suffered a setback in 2008

The mood is reminiscent of Somalia in 2008, when the US classified the Al-Shabaab militia as a terrorist organization. NRC employee Begum talks about a time of “confusion and fear”. Because of concerns about US sanctions, aid organizations no longer accepted any money from certain donors and “censored themselves”. Humanitarian aid suffered a setback. Soon after, more than 250,000 people died in a famine in the country between 2010 and 2012.

Such a catastrophe of possibly much worse proportions could also threaten Yemen, UN Secretary-General António Guterres recently warned. There is “probably no example in recent history except Ethiopia”, where an estimated more than a million people died of starvation in 1984.



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