Skip to main content

Yemen: Humanitarian Situation

Volume 701: debated on Wednesday 20 October 2021

Before we begin, I would encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking—that is in line with guidance—and to give each other and members of staff space when they are seated and when entering and leaving rooms.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Yemen.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Miller. [Interruption.] Sorry, let me find my notes—I just had a little rush to change seats.

That is no problem. I know that a couple of colleagues wish to intervene. That is entirely in order, as Gill Furniss has said that is okay.

I am very grateful. I do not think that my hon. Friend knows how important this debate is to me. Having been born in Aden, and now seeing it war-torn in such a way, I am extremely concerned about what is going on there. I would like to return, at some stage, and I feel that, with the help of Martin Griffiths, the penholder, we can possibly find a road to peace. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Very much so. I will come to that in more detail further on in my speech.

As the chair of Labour Friends of Yemen and a long-time advocate for peace in the country, I am pleased to have secured this important debate. I will preface it by saying that it is impossible to detach the humanitarian crisis from the ongoing civil war in Yemen. Until there is a lasting peace in the country, it is impossible to see how the large-scale intervention required to redress the humanitarian crisis can be delivered.

I start by reminding the House of the sheer scale of the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Aid agencies line up with statistics that are so stark that it is devastating that the global community has not done more to protect innocent lives. Last month marked seven years since the start of the Yemen civil war—a conflict that has created what the UN has labelled

“The worst humanitarian crisis in the world”.

The already bleak situation in the country has been made worse over the past 20 months, as violence has escalated, torrential rains have caused flooding and we have seen a locust infestation, a fuel crisis, covid-19 and the devaluation of the rial. In its latest update, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that there are 20.7 million people in need, including 12 million in acute need. The agency has warned that, without additional resources, yet more people could fall into the acute need category.

I spoke to the hon. Lady beforehand, and I congratulate her on bringing this issue forward—it is very close to my heart as well. It has been seven years since the war in Yemen broke out and, as she said, it is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world. Just recently, 155 Houthi rebels were killed by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, as the battle for Marib in northern Yemen intensifies due to its being rich in oil. Does the hon. Lady agree that it is finally time for the United Kingdom to step in and insist on investigating war crimes, given the recent news that the UN Human Rights Council voted against renewing the body’s mandate for investigating war crimes in Yemen? It is basically saying, “Saudi Arabia, you can do whatever you like in Yemen, and no one can touch you.” It is absolutely outrageous, is it not?

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention. He is absolutely right to say that. This has been flagged up over and over again with international communities. We did, in fact, visit the French Assembly, where other MPs from across Europe also tried to have a go at this. The time has come when action must be taken, or there will be no Yemen left, and no Yemeni people.

It is estimated that 4 million people have been displaced. Rather than showing any signs of improvement, the crisis grows grimmer with every passing month. OCHA has also estimated that the conflict and humanitarian crisis have caused an estimated 233,000 deaths. Those are mostly due not to the conflict itself but to indirect causes, such as a lack of food and a deterioration in the health service infrastructure. That does not include the country’s covid-19 deaths, which are very likely to be higher than the official statistics.

The war has created an environment that has allowed a multitude of disasters to take root. The country’s health infrastructure has been significantly damaged; half of its health facilities are no longer functioning, and those that are lack equipment as basic as masks and gloves. Many healthcare workers and teachers, who I will touch on further in a moment, have not taken a regular salary in years.

In that context, diseases such as cholera and typhoid have been allowed to run rampant: the UN has estimated that there have been more than 2.5 million cases of cholera in the country, with more than 4,000 deaths. Famine is widespread, with more than half of Yemenis not having enough to eat, and a quarter of Yemenis, including 2 million children, are suffering from malnutrition.

The problems have been made worse by natural disasters such as widespread flooding. The worst flood in a generation hit just as covid arrived in the country in spring 2020. It impacted on more than 100,000 people. Furthermore, the flooding season often brings with it the risk of a cholera outbreak. The Centre for Disaster Philanthropy stated that the outbreak that occurred during the rainy season in 2019 was the second worst outbreak in global history. It is still not officially under control.

I draw particular attention to the impact of all that on children. UNICEF stated that the country has become a “living hell for children”, with the damage to schools and hospitals severely limiting access to education and health services, robbing children of their futures. In July, UNICEF gave a stark warning that the number of children facing disruption to their education could rise to 6 million.

The report UNICEF published alongside that headline figure makes clear the devastating impact of the conflict on those children. It explains that the consequences of such a significant disruption to children’s education will be severe, now and in the future. Children are vulnerable to being forced into child labour or recruited as fighters, with more than 3,600 recruited in the past six years, and girls are forced into child marriages. Those children are being trapped in a cycle of poverty and unfulfilled potential.

Of those teachers who are able to teach, 170,000, or two thirds, are not receiving a regular salary. Perhaps most devastating of all, since March 2015 there have been 231 attacks on schools in Yemen, killing innocent children and reducing schools to piles of rubble. That brings into question the shameful logic of the member states of the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month—I will touch on that further in a moment.

The rights of children to learn must be a top priority. Education is the most powerful tool to combat inequality, poverty and deprivation. The Government must reaffirm their commitment to that and, at the most senior levels, push to end attacks on schools, ensure salaries for teachers and allow international support for long-term education programmes.

I want to touch on the decision made just last week by the UN Human Rights Council. I welcome the UK’s decision to back the Dutch motion to renew the independent investigators’ mandate for another two years to monitor atrocities in the conflict. Unfortunately, the motion was defeated, due to the opposition of a bloc led by Russia. Without that oversight, a real concern is that bombings of schools and civilian sites will increase. The decision has been criticised by humanitarian charities around the world, including Save the Children, which called it a “devastating blow” for the people of Yemen. The Minister will be as disappointed as I am. I strongly encourage him to ensure that the Government make their concerns known in the strongest possible terms.

My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that an environmental and humanitarian disaster is also about to happen because of the abandoned oil tanker that fell into Houthi hands? If not addressed by the UN Security Council, it could cause devastation across the whole region, plunging yet more people into starvation and famine, and having other impacts. A year ago, I wrote to the Minister asking him take the lead. I hope that he will do so—he has not yet—and that he will take the lead on this as penholders with the UN Security Council.

I thank my hon. Friend for making that good point. I, too, made representations to the Minister when we learnt that news in the west. We are all very worried about the impact on the entire region should the tanker be allowed to decay and presumably become a massive danger to the populations in that area.

Given the wide-ranging impact of this humanitarian crisis, it is frankly unfathomable that the UK has cut its aid to Yemen. It flies in the face of the ever increasing challenges that face an ever increasing number of Yemenis. Cutting this vital lifeline has cost lives and will continue to do so. Will the Minister tell us whether there has been an assessment to determine the impact the cuts have had and will continue to have on the ongoing suffering in Yemen?

The Minister has said that the aid funding that has been announced will be a floor, not a ceiling. If there is a country where the Government could make good on those words, Yemen is it. If funding remains at the level announced, there will be a staggering 59% cut from the amount spent in the 2020-21 budget. I invite the Minister to update the House on exactly how much funding will be allocated this year. Human suffering is of such a scale that the Government must do more both to push for lasting peace and to save lives in the meantime. As the UN Security Council penholder on Yemen, we have a significant role to play in bringing about peace.

Since the bombing of Yemen began, the public value of arms contracts between the UK and Saudi Arabia has totalled £6.5 billion. International aid to those in need of humanitarian relief is cut, while arms companies continue to profit from the war. Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation is intolerable and demands a threefold response? First, there has to be an immediate increase in aid. Secondly, we have to stop the arms trade with Saudi Arabia. Lastly, we need to find a peaceful, long-term resolution to bring an end to this conflict through intervention by the international community.

My hon. Friend has made nearly all my points—I am sure the Minister has heard them loud and clear and will address them in his speech.

In response to an urgent question in February, the Minister said he could not commit to a suggestion from the Chair of the Defence Committee to offer to host a UN summit to look at the political options. Has the Minister given that suggestion any further consideration?

Those of us who take an interest in Yemen often get a sense of déjà vu when listening to the Minister’s responses. We are well aware that the Government believe the only way to bring an end to the conflict is through a political settlement. However, the UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, has said that the end of the conflict and humanitarian crisis is not in sight. If that is the case, it is a dereliction of our duty as a forward-thinking, global Britain to cut aid funding as more and more Yemeni lives and livelihoods are destroyed. I urge the Government to take a fresh look at the situation in Yemen and commit to doing whatever can possibly be done to secure a lasting peace for the people of Yemen.

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Miller. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this important debate. The situation in Yemen is beyond despair. As the hon. Lady rightly said, it remains the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with two thirds of Yemenis—more than 20 million people—requiring some form of humanitarian assistance.

The crisis results from a perfect storm of poverty, war and economic collapse, and has been exacerbated by the covid-19 pandemic. It is clear that any sustainable solution can only really begin when the conflict comes to an end. The hon. Lady says that it is not the first time I have said that, but it is true none the less. That is why the UK Government are working and have worked with countries in the region and the wider international community to bring about peace, as well as playing our part in directly addressing the humanitarian suffering. Today, in response to the various questions, I will give an overview of the work we have done and are doing.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for securing this debate, but like all of us, I wish we did not have to be here. Can the Minister give us more information, because unless there is a political solution, this will be going on for another seven years? It seems that there is a real unwillingness on the part of the main players to come round the table. Can he give us any hope that the UK and UN interventions will make that meeting happen, so that we can negotiate peace in the near future?

I know that the hon. Lady and other Members in the Chamber and elsewhere take a very close interest in this issue. She and I have discussed it both formally and informally. I wish that I could give her the certainty that she asks for. The sad truth of the matter is that at this point, I am not able to do so. However, we will continue to work with partners in the region, including those who are directly involved in the conflict, and indeed, when the opportunity arises, directly with representatives of the Houthis themselves. That channel has been denied to us recently, but we will nevertheless continue to work with anyone and everyone we feel can help to bring about peace in Yemen, so that the real work of rebuilding the country and its society can start in earnest.

In terms of humanitarian support, the UK Government have been one of the largest donors since the crisis began, having contributed more than £1 billion in aid. We pledged £87 million this year and have already distributed 85% of it. While I am conscious that our contribution this year is smaller than in previous years, for reasons the House is very familiar with, the importance of the timely distribution of our aid cannot be overstated. Despite financial pressures at home, we remain of the largest donors to the UN appeal.

Our funding this year will provide at least 1.6 million people with access to clean drinking water. It will support 400 clinics to offer primary healthcare and it will feed 240,000 of the most vulnerable Yemenis every month. We are working with partners to ensure that priority is given to those suffering the most from food insecurity, to marginalised communities and vulnerable displaced people, and to those living in conflict-affected areas.

Sadly yet predictably, the conflict has been particularly hard on women and girls. Reports of gender-based violence have risen significantly since the conflict began. That is totally unacceptable, and it is why we are co-hosting the international gender co-ordination group with the Netherlands later this month to boost international efforts to tackle gender-based violence. To improve the life chances of newborns and young mothers, we have funded UNICEF to provide over 2 million pregnant women and new mothers with nutrition counselling and education since 2018, and we expect to support more women with reproductive health services over the next year. Since 2018, we have helped 85,000 women receive trained medical support during childbirth, and we expect to support 50,000 more by March 2022.

Of course, those are all good things to be doing, but will the Minister answer the question of when the cut in aid of 50% is going to be reversed?

I and other Ministers have made it clear that the reduction in official development assistance spending is driven by the worst economic crisis this country has faced in 300 years. Luckily— no, not luckily; thankfully—because of our world-class vaccine roll-out programme, our economic recovery seems to be working at pace. We have the fastest recovery among our G7 partners. Hopefully that will mean we are able to recover to the 0.7% level, which we are committed to returning to as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I am not able to give an accurate prediction of the future trajectory of the UK economy and, therefore, cannot give the hon. Lady a specific point in time. It remains our aim and commitment to return to 0.7% as soon as the economic conditions allow.

I thank the Minister for his attention to this subject. Could I ask a double-headed question? I am sorry, but time is obviously limited. What accountability is there to ensure the money is actually going to where it should go, and when was the last time the Minister spoke to Martin Griffiths?

To answer the second question first, I speak with Martin quite regularly. I cannot remember the precise date on which I last spoke to him, but he and I have an excellent working relationship, and we speak quite regularly.

With regard to accountability, we take the prevention of aid diversion incredibly seriously. We probably have one of the most robust donor frameworks, and we always ensure that where possible, we minimise aid diversion, because we know—particularly in areas of conflict—that diverted aid can go to reinforce the conflict, rather than to humanitarian aid. Work is ongoing in this area, as it is in all others.

I am sure the Minister is aware that Martin Griffiths is no longer the UN penholder, but he is, of course, the co-ordinator for UN humanitarian relief. Will the Minister detail whether he has had a meeting or conversation with Hans Grundberg, who is the new UN penholder?

As I say, Martin’s role has changed, but he is still an influential player. I spoke with Hans shortly after his appointment.

To further expand on the point that the right hon. Member for Walsall South made, to ensure that humanitarian spending is effective, we channel our support through organisations with a strong record of delivery and fund the independent monitoring of our own programmes. Ministers and officials co-ordinate closely with other donors, the UN and non-governmental organisations to maximise the effectiveness of the global response and improve access to, and conditions in, Yemen. For example, in August, I had discussions with David Gressly, the UN resident humanitarian co-ordinator for Yemen, and I stressed that UK aid must not be diverted from those in need. At the UN General Assembly, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) recently urged parties to allow humanitarian access across the country in accordance with the principles of international law.

Aid alone, however, will not solve the crisis facing Yemen and Yemenis. We are working with the US, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates through the economic quad to help support the stabilisation of Yemen’s economic crisis, as well as through the joint economic programmes of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the United States Agency for International Development. We are providing technical support to the Central Bank of Yemen on foreign exchange and reserve management, as well as technical advice to the Yemeni Prime Minister’s executive bureau to deliver much-needed economic reform. We are also working closely with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to provide development finance that can help alleviate Yemen’s hard currency crisis, which is driving depreciation of the Yemeni rial in Government-held areas.

The hon. Member for Cardiff North (Anna McMorrin), my former opposite number, has mentioned the Safer oil tanker and the environmental impacts, as well as the catastrophic economic impacts, that it has created. She is right to highlight it; she is wrong to say that the UK is not doing enough. If I remember rightly, she wrote to me in September 2020, exactly two months after I raised this issue, so I can assure her that the Government and I are very alive to it. Indeed, I brought it up when I had a face-to-face meeting with a representative of the Houthis during my trip to Oman in October 2020, highlighting the importance of allowing access to that ship and for repairs or transfers to take place.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer on this issue. Can he tell me what access the UN is going to have to that ship following that conversation? As we know, four times as many tonnes of oil are on it as were on the Exxon Valdez, which would lead to a catastrophic disaster if it leaked.

I am precluded by time from going into the detail for which the hon. Member strives, but I have written extensively on that issue and can forward her links to the various statements and calls for international co-operation that I have made, including directly with the Houthis, which I would like to think have played a part in some access to that ship being allowed—but nowhere near as much as is deserved. I hope right hon. and hon. Members will forgive me, but I am conscious that we are tight on time and I want to get through a number of important points before we finish.

The conflict has been punctuated by reports of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The UK Government condemn all violations, including the denial of humanitarian access and the recruitment and use of child soldiers. We monitor, collate and analyse such reports and support the UN-led verification of them, as well as the production of the UN Secretary General’s reports on human rights and children affected by armed conflict.

Accountability is key. The UK regrets that the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen was not recently renewed in the UN Human Rights Council. The group provided crucial reporting on human rights in Yemen. The UK Government urge all parties to respect international humanitarian and human rights law, and we are working to secure a political solution that creates the conditions for legitimate government to improve the protection of human rights.

As I said at the start of my speech, covid-19 has compounded an already dire crisis. It continues to rip through the country, with reports of overwhelmed intensive care units in both Sana’a and Aden. In the last financial year, the UK provided £30 million to mitigate the impact of covid-19 in Yemen, which helped boost the resilience of the primary healthcare system. COVAX has allocated 2.3 million vaccine doses to Yemen, thanks in significant part to the UK’s £548 million donation and ongoing support. We are discussing vaccination roll-out with the World Health Organisation and other partners and are working to ensure equitable access across the whole country.

As I said at the outset, the key to solving Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is ending the conflict and negotiating a political settlement that holds. As I said earlier, I spoke to the incoming UN special envoy Hans Grundberg in August to offer the UK Government’s continued support for his work to bring the parties to the negotiating table. We will do all that we can to support those efforts, including as the UN Security Council lead on Yemen.

Although the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen do not get the media attention they deserve, the UK Government are nevertheless working doggedly to alleviate the suffering of the Yemeni people, and we are using our diplomatic and humanitarian expertise to do so. We continue to be one of the top donors to the UN-led response, but we know that the only way to end the humanitarian crisis in the long term is a peaceful settlement to the conflict. That is why we have played and will continue to play a leading role in moving the peace process forward and supporting the work of UN special envoy Hans Grundberg.

Question put and agreed to.