COVID-19 scapegoating triggers fresh displacement in Yemen, warns migration agency

21 July 2020

COVID-19 fears have prompted fresh displacement in war-torn Yemen, and forced many of those on the move to sell what little they have to survive, UN humanitarians said on Tuesday.

From the end of March to 18 July, more than 10,000 people interviewed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), cited “fear of infection and the impact of the outbreak on services and the economy”, as their as reasons for leaving virus hotspots.

“A woman named Salam in Aden told our staff about people selling their mattresses, blankets and children’s clothing in order to meet their basic needs”, spokesperson Paul Dillon told journalists in Geneva. “Displaced women who used to work as maids are forced to beg in the streets because potential employers are afraid they’re carrying the virus.” 

Following interviews with displaced individuals, IOM said that some were travelling from Aden and Lahj to areas within the same governorates less affected by the outbreak; others were making for districts in Abyan despite active fighting elsewhere in the governorate.

False narratives

“One of the key concerns that we have and one that’s shared by the humanitarian community not just in Yemen but elsewhere, is the emergence of these false narratives about COVID-19”, Mr. Dillon said. “False information that’s been circulated in different areas about the virus and the emerging and very clear examples, of xenophobia and xenophobic attacks being directed at displaced people.”

A doctor treats a patient while wearing PPE to stop COVID-19 transmission in an IOM-supported health centre in Aden City, Yemen.
A doctor treats a patient while wearing PPE to stop COVID-19 transmission in an IOM-supported health centre in Aden City, Yemen., by IOM/Rami Ibrahim

Latest data from IOM’s Data Tracking Matrix indicates that “more than 100,000 people have been forced to flee due to fighting and insecurity since January”, amid ongoing violence linked to the country’s grinding conflict, which is well into its sixth year, Mr. Dillon continued.

The actual number of displaced people is likely to be higher, he added, as data is only being collected in 12 of 22 governorates amid access restrictions, while many of those displaced because of the pandemic, were moving for the “second, third or fourth time”.

Hospitals ‘turning people away’

Although the official number of COVID-19 infections in Yemen remains low, it is widely believed the actual number is much higher after the first cases were identified in April, given limited testing capacity and concerns among the local population about seeking treatment.

Mr. Dillon highlighted that around half of all health facilities have been forced to close or been damaged since conflict escalated in March 2015, between the forces of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi - supported by a Saudi-led international coalition – and mainly Houthi militia, which also have international support, for control of the Arab nation.

“The situation is especially dire in places like Aden where hospitals are turning away suspected cases and news reports have shown large numbers of graves being dug”, he explained.

Widely described as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, around eight in 10 people in Yemen need humanitarian assistance, according to IOM.

Funding gaps

To date, its $155 million appeal for funding from April to December to provide comprehensive assistance to around five million people, is around 50 per cent funded.

The organization’s humanitarian activities are made possible through nine mobile health and protection teams and 36 health facilities across the country and in 63 sites for displaced people.

“Access constraints are having a knock-on effect on operations but we are continuing to deliver, for example, medical assistance and materials to people who are living rough, whether they be migrants or internally displaced people within Yemen. So that’s a major focus of what we’ve been doing”, Mr. Dillon said.


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