I beg to move,
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Yemen and children’s rights.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. Labelled the world’s “forgotten humanitarian crisis” by the World Health Organisation, the catastrophe in Yemen is often overlooked in foreign policy discussions at both domestic and international levels. Many people, indeed, would struggle to point to Yemen on a map. But eight years of intense conflict, economic collapse and a crumbling social support system have brought about unimaginable suffering for Yemeni civilians, and children are paying the heaviest price. The gravity of this humanitarian situation and the necessity for rapid action cannot be overstated, and it is for that reason that I tabled the motion.
Since 2015, Yemen has been ravaged by intense fighting between the Houthis—a militant group assisted by Iran—and the internationally recognised Government, which is backed by the Saudi-led coalition and supported through arms sales by this UK Government. Yemen is divided: the Houthis control the north-west and a combination of Government forces and the Southern Transitional Council, which is backed by the United Arab Emirates, control the south and east. Since October last year, Oman has been facilitating peace talks, and last month’s events, which included constructive discussions between the Houthis and the Saudi delegation in Sanaa, as well as notable prisoner exchanges, are cause for cautious optimism. The focus of this debate, however, is not the military course of the war, nor the complex political negotiations, but the human aspect—Yemen’s children, whose lives have been upended and who are in desperate need of urgent and direct humanitarian assistance.
Currently, there are more than 2 million malnourished children in Yemen—as many children as live in London. Of those, 540,000 are under the age of five and are suffering from such severe hunger that, according to the WHO, they face a direct risk of death. Because of the country’s crumbling infrastructure, millions of Yemeni children lack access to basic healthcare, clean water and sanitation. Indeed, nearly half the health facilities across the country are either completely out of service or only partially functioning.
Children’s education has also been severely disrupted. Some 2,500 schools have been damaged, and according to UNICEF around 2.5 million children are not at school. It is no surprise to many Members here that girls are particularly impacted. When girls cannot access education, they become much more vulnerable to child marriage.
I commend the hon. Lady for securing this debate; it concerns a great subject, and there are lots of things to sort out. Last year, a human rights watchdog, SAM for Rights and Liberties, recorded over 30,000 violations of children’s rights in Yemen, including killing, forced recruitment, kidnapping, arbitrary detention, and lack of access to education and healthcare. Does she agree that the situation has only deteriorated in the last 12 months, and that we now need a massive movement from the international community to help those children in Yemen?
The hon. Gentleman highlights the very nub of the debate. It is not just that the money is not going in; one of the big issues is that non-governmental organisations on the ground are struggling to be in Yemen. We need proper international dialogue to get aid in and reverse some of the aspects that he has highlighted.
Liverpool, Riverside has a long-established Yemeni community, and Habibti has been funding a children’s hospital in Sanaa for many years. Given that Britain has earned eight times more from arms sales to the Saudi-led coalition than it has spent on aid to help civilians—particularly children—caught up in the conflict, does the hon. Member agree that the UK’s role in this war is a dark stain on our foreign policy?
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. I will come on to the arms trade with Saudi Arabia and Britain’s role in that, but we cannot just be seen as a benevolent overseer here. The UK actually has its fingers in the pie in Yemen, and it is certainly not helping to broker peace while it is still arming the Saudi-led coalition.
Coming back to the subject of girl brides, according to Girls Not Brides, many girls in Yemen have been married off as a source of income during the conflict as families are driven deeper into poverty and desperation. There have also been reports of girls being trafficked through so-called tourist marriages with wealthy men from the Arab Gulf region for the purpose of sexual exploitation. These people are desperate, and it is unfortunately the most vulnerable who will suffer. Currently, 9% of Yemeni girls are married by the age of 15, and nearly a third are married by their 18th birthday.
However, the war does not just affect girls; it casts its lethal shadow over the entire nation. Landmines and unexploded ordnance have killed and continue to kill hundreds of children, and instability has resulted in the internal displacement of 3.2 million people. According to UNICEF, one child in Yemen dies from preventable causes every 10 minutes; during the course of this debate, another six children in Yemen will have died needlessly.
The situation on the ground is devastating. Children’s rights to life, food, security and basic healthcare are under threat. Against this backdrop, the UK Government stand by their decision to cut official development assistance funding from 0.7% of GNI to 0.5%—in doing so, slashing aid to the most vulnerable. In 2020, the UK pledged £214 million in aid to Yemen; this year, that figure is only £88 million. In 2020, when the ODA cut was initially enacted, many colleagues across the House—a number of them are here in the Chamber—deemed it inhumane and hoped the policy would be short-lived. It certainly seems inconsistent with this Government’s eagerness to project a global Britain that defends universal human rights, supports conflict resolution and tackles extreme deprivation. Three years on, this unethical aid cut remains, and global Britain seems no more than empty rhetoric. I am aware that, alongside the US and Germany, the UK is one of the major contributors of aid to Yemen—I will say that—but we are providing far less than we did previously. The longer the shortfall is maintained, the slower and more limited our humanitarian reach in Yemen will be. According to the former UN emergency relief co-ordinator, Sir Mark Lowcock, “there is no question” but that the decision to cut ODA has increased civilian loss of life in the country.
The UK’s desire to be a force for good must be underwritten by concrete action, and it demands that we do more. If inadequate humanitarian funding is one moral failing, the Government’s decision to arm the Saudi-led coalition is another. Air strikes by the coalition have hit hundreds of civilian targets. The Saudi air campaign alone has killed around 9,000 civilians, including hundreds of children, which has elicited strong condemnation from the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres.
Is the hon. Lady aware that United Nations resolution 2216 actually demanded the withdrawal of the Houthis and gave recognition to the coalition under President Hadi to restore the legitimate Government to Yemen? It was actually a UN resolution in the first place that brought in Saudi and the Gulf states.
It is useful to have that background; I thank the hon. Lady for that. To be honest, I am not here to point fingers at other states—apart from the ones we are arming and involving in this conflict. There is a very complex situation in Yemen; there are lots of different factions involved, and its history is very coloured. We need to look at how we can help to resolve the situation, rather than throwing petrol on the fire.
There is overwhelming evidence of repeated breaches of international humanitarian law, but the UK Government continue to supply the coalition with weaponry. The published value of arms licensed for export to the Saudi coalition since bombardment began is £9.4 billion, but according to estimates from the Campaign Against Arms Trade, the real value is nearly triple that figure. The Government are prioritising economic advantage over children’s futures. This Government rightly condemned Moscow’s aggressive bombing of a Ukrainian maternity hospital, but where was the condemnation of Saudi Arabia when Yemen’s civilian infrastructure was targeted?
The recent calls for a ceasefire are welcome, but the necessity of ending arms sales is no less urgent. I hope that the recent progress and talks between the warring parties bring about new peace and prosperity so that lives can be pieced back together.
The hon. Lady is again expressing her compassion for the people in a very significant way. The UN has said that the agreement of a truce between the Saudi-led military coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels last April is the first and best chance to try to find peace. Does she agree that there is a real risk that the talks that the UN are putting together will break down, and that we need to do everything in our power to avoid a repeat of what has happened in Sudan over the last few years?
All of us here are optimistic about where this might go. Even if peace is brought about by the coalition and starts tomorrow—the UK is the UN penholder for Yemen, we have a role—it will take many years to rebuild all the infrastructure, get children back into school, start supporting families and ensure that these children have a better future than they do currently.
Writing in The Times just over a week ago of his harrowing visit to the malnutrition wards in Sadaa in Yemen, the Minister for international development, the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), argued that the Government “remain committed” to the human rights-based UN development goals, stating:
“It is frankly obscene, that in the 21st century and in our world of plenty, children are facing famine.”
I could not agree more. Surely the Government recognise the contradiction in their position. How can they talk about eradicating famine while continuing to enact devastating aid cuts? How can they affirm their commitment to human rights while arming a state that continues to undermine them?
What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about reinstating ODA to 0.7% of GNI? What impact assessment has been made of the effect of the cut in ODA on the children of Yemen? What plans does he have to get emergency aid to NGOs working on the ground to deliver vital supplies? What discussions has he had with his counterparts in Saudi Arabia regarding its targeting of Yemeni civilians? How effective does he feel the licensing criteria for arms sales are, given the repeated breaching of international humanitarian law by Saudi Arabia?
Children in Yemen are starving; they are losing out on an education; and they are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance. Surely any profits from arms sales are rendered worthless when the cost is Yemeni children’s lives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard, I think for the first time. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing the debate.
As the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and I were born in Yemen, we have taken part in many debates on Yemen over the years. It is good to see that there has been some progress: there has been no return to major fighting since the ceasefire formally ended, although localised fighting, score-settling and crime are still contributing to the suffering of millions of Yemenis. Major seizures of weapon shipments to Ansar Allah indicate that the conflict has potentially been paused rather than ended, which I hope is not the case, but we have seen the recent tragedy in Sanaa, in which 78 people died in a crush at an event where aid was being distributed. Many of those people were from the very poorest part of Yemeni society: the Muhamasheen. That something so tragic should happen at a charitable event is horrifying. My thoughts are with the victims and their families.
I am pleased that our Government have been a leader at the UN in promoting a settlement. I also thank the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office for its work on the international women and girls strategy and its recognition of the appalling situation for women and girls in Yemen—it has finally been included on the list. The way in which the conflict has entrenched gender inequality is absolutely horrendous, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North West mentioned. The position of women and girls in Yemen was dire before the civil war began in 2013: 35% of women were illiterate and only 670,000 girls were in education, out of a school-age population of around 9.5 million children. It is education that I want to concentrate on first.
A quarter of Yemeni schools have been damaged or destroyed. Access to education is now so poor that more than 2 million, out of 10 million, are out of school. Some 33% of the whole population is barely literate or has only primary school education. Teachers have been paid only occasionally, and the salaries given do not sustain a family above poverty level. About 70% of Yemen’s children live in areas controlled by Ansar Allah, which has rewritten the school syllabus to focus on its own ideology—in particular, that fighting and dying for the Houthi cause is a direct route to heaven. Children are encouraged to join summer camps, where they are given physical and military training, and many older children drop out of school completely and have ended up joining the conflict.
We know that children elsewhere in Yemen are at risk of indoctrination, especially in schools in the south, which promotes its own secessionist ideology. Payment is now required in many places for a child to go to school, and the cost of providing essential textbooks and stationery also falls on families. Like everything else, they have nearly doubled in price over the last year, so I hope that we focus our aid on funding teachers, schools and equipment. Above all, education is absolutely crucial if Yemen is to build its way to being a successful, modern and 21st-century economy based on quality employment in modern businesses. We need to do whatever it takes to make that happen. Some of the neighbouring countries have achieved great things. Let us hope that we can do the same in Yemen.
Moving on to humanitarian issues, Yemen is suffering from spikes in the prices of essential goods. In some places, flour can now cost up to three times as much as it did before the invasion of Ukraine, and diesel costs between two and three times as much as it did this time last year. There has been no growth in wages or household income since the start of the ceasefire, and Yemeni families have no insurance against rising prices. Although it is good news that the blockade of the Red sea ports has lifted, the Houthis have now banned the movement of many goods by road from Aden and Mukalla, in order to guarantee Ansar Allah’s revenue stream from the port at Hodeida.
However, there are some signs of progress. The recent prisoner exchange has freed over 900 people on both sides of the conflict, many of whom were political prisoners or simply hostages. There remain several thousand people in jails and camps across Yemen, and the accounts of human rights violations from those released in the exchange are still a cause for concern. We must make sure that those who perpetrated atrocities are brought to justice. Politically, we need continued progress in the negotiations between the Houthis, the Presidential Leadership Council and Saudi Government in key areas, including re-establishing a unified central bank and currency, without which the Yemeni economy will remain crippled. We need to help when required.
I would like to close by returning to the incredibly dangerous situation with the oil tanker FSO Safer in the Red sea off Hodeida. I have brought this up many a time with Ministers. The UK has been a leader at the UN in raising funds to empty the oil from that ship into a secure tanker and dispose of the Safer. The replacement tank is on its way and has been exempted from canal tolls by the Egyptian Government. However, there is still a shortfall of around $20 million for the required work. Will the Minister ensure that we keep up the pressure at the UN? The last thing Yemen needs when we are still a long way from the end of the civil war is a major ecological disaster.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship Mr Pritchard. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) not only for securing this debate but for making an eloquent and touching speech. I endorse everything that she said. The situation is tragic and ongoing.
I wish to start by putting on record a press report. I have a cutting that says:
“Gross violations of international law. Missiles raining down on houses. Kleptocrats laundering their ill-gotten gains through London and buying political influence. Aggressive, powerful states attacking a poorer neighbour; backing separatist rebels; illegally occupying its land; dropping cluster bombs and conducting crippling cyber-attacks.”
The article asks if that sounds familiar. But that is not Putin; it is not Bakhmut. It was a year ago and written with regard to the war in Yemen. We see support and the flags flying, even here, for Ukraine. We have hosted President Zelensky. We have condemned President Putin unreservedly, and rightly so. Yet everything that is going on in Bakhmut is being replicated in Yemen, and little is being done.
The comment has been made that it takes two to have a fight, and I am not here to support one side or other, but, as other hon. Members have mentioned, the bulk of the danger is being created by the weaponry, especially of the Saudi Arabians and the United Arab Emirates. Abu Dhabi and Dubai are principally supported by the British military, and that is something that we have to address. We are providing aid to Yemen and commenting on the ongoing horror, yet as other hon. Members—especially the hon. Member for Glasgow North West—have said, we are fuelling and funding that situation by providing the weaponry that is wreaking the horror there.
I mentioned earlier that the situation in Yemen is completely incomparable to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This was very much under UN resolution 2216. The hon. Gentleman has not mentioned the fact that Iran has also contributed weapons to the Houthis.
I condemn Iran for its role, as I condemn it for its drones that have been causing horror in Ukraine. But we all bleed the same. A Houthi or a Yemeni bleeds the same as a Ukrainian or a Russian, and we have to recognise that. We cannot exculpate ourselves by saying that they are slightly different.
I wish to put on record the importance of recognising the role that the UK and, indeed, Scotland, is playing. The UK is the principal arms supplier for Saudi Arabia, which is why we turned a blind eye when Khashoggi was murdered: “Who cares? Let us look away and invite Mohammed bin Salman or whatever—it does not matter so long as we continue to sell.” The hon. Member for Glasgow North West and others have rightly put that on record. The tragedy is that Scotland has a role in this. As the report I quoted goes on to say, we are aware that missiles provided by Raytheon are causing death and misery in Yemen, indiscriminately killing children from whatever side. The fact of the matter is that the laser guidance systems for Raytheon’s missiles are made at Glenrothes, in Scotland.
I was born in Aden and lived the first 10 years of my life there. I want to thank hon. Members who, throughout the time that I have been here, have raised the issue of Yemen, which does fall off the agenda. Hon. Members have done a good job—whether the Government or the Opposition or even Back Benchers, we have put it on the map. We are getting to a position now—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman agrees—where people are talking, and it is much better that they talk than they fight.
I have not been allowed to go back to Yemen, but the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and I and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson are possibly going on a trip, and that would be an incredible thing for all of us because we have not been back there. I hope that the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) accepts that it is becoming a safer place—it will never be completely safe until everyone is around the table and accepts the rule of law—but at the heart of this debate is the fact that there are children suffering and people starving. We see pictures of babies who are skeletons. It is quite horrifying. I just gently remind the hon. Member that all hon. Members are aware of the suffering that is occurring. It is why we are having this debate today. I thank him for allowing me such a long intervention.
I am happy to accept that intervention and, indeed, to put on record that I welcome progress being made. The right hon. Member obviously knows much more about this than I do. Any progress is to be welcomed. I am also aware that the deaths and misery being inflicted on children come more often not from weaponry but from disease and all the disasters as a result of the fragmentation and breakdown of society. But the UK does have a role, both in funding and providing support and in diplomacy. I just wish that in other conflicts we would listen more to Pope Francis, and perhaps seek to take his guidance.
We have to put on record, as has been done, that the UK has a role in arming Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. It is also important to put on record that Scotland has a role due to the provision of laser-guided missiles from Glenrothes by Raytheon. I was in the Scottish Government when Raytheon was there, and I have to confess that my hands are implicated in this, but times have moved on. I was a Minister from 2007 to 2014; we are now in 2023. I recall some seven years ago, when I was not in politics at all, writing in defence of the Scottish Government that it is very easy to be condemnatory, but one has to accept that there are quality, skilled jobs that cannot be easily replaced in Glenrothes, where there will be high unemployment. I wrote that there were people working hard there and we had to provide protection.
However, there must come a time when we say that this cannot go on. We have been funding Raytheon; we have been giving it grants to come to Scotland and stay there. There has to come a time when we say, “No, we won’t.” We cannot simply say that it is wrong that the United Kingdom provides armaments to Saudi Arabia, but that it is okay that we in Scotland are prepared to fund Raytheon to provide the laser guidance for the missiles that will be fired. I have to put that on the record. Do I expect Raytheon to up and move out of Glenrothes? No, that would be an economic disaster for the area, but we have to say that we are not going to fund it any more, and that we will try to encourage it to find a better use for the site.
There has to come a time when Scotland recognises that it is not enough simply to say that the role of the United Kingdom is wrong. Scotland must say that it also has a role, albeit smaller and far less serious. The kids who die do not care where the missiles came from. They just want them stopped. That is what I want to put on record. I fully accept the comments that have been made by hon. Members, and I fully endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for bringing forward this important debate. It feels like it has been too long since we had a debate about Yemen.
The conflict tracks fairly evenly the time that my hon. Friend and I have been in Parliament. Over the past eight years, the crisis in Yemen has been constantly on my radar. It came to my attention because a constituent came to my surgery to tell me that the Home Office had refused his status and wanted to send him back to a war zone. Things were just breaking out at that point. I think often about him and his family, as well as the many families in Yemen whose lives, livelihoods and adulthoods have been marked by this conflict. These have been a very long and hard eight years in Yemen. While other conflicts have come and gone and moved on during that period, Yemen’s has persisted.
As hon. Members have pointed out, the UK has a special role as the penholder for Yemen at the United Nations and as a supplier of arms to parties to the conflict. We have an important role in rebuilding and providing aid, and in doing what we can for the future of Yemen.
I want to pick up on a few points that have been made. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West was right to point out the vulnerability of children in the conflict. Children’s futures have been hampered, and in many cases destroyed, by the lack of access to education, medical care and ordinary things such as vaccinations, which are more difficult to get. During the conflict it has been difficult to get things across Yemen; the parties to the conflict have put in place roadblocks and barriers, preventing movement of food and goods that would have been helpful to young people.
In the absence of those things, 2.7 million children have been left out of school, education facilities have been bombed, and mines have been left in many parts of the country. In a helpful briefing, Save the Children states that casualties from mines increased from one every five days in 2018 to one every two days in 2022. There has rightly been a lot of focus recently on the impact of landmines in Ukraine, but we also need to invest in de-mining capacity in Yemen. Without that, people cannot live safely and go back to the lives they once had.
The key to this issue is funding. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West talked about the reduction in official development assistance, and the cruel way in which UK aid funding has been diverted to pay for the asylum backlog rather than to help those in Yemen stay there and live their lives—robbing Peter to pay Paul. The cut in the budget from £214 million in 2020 to £88 million in 2023—a period in which the need in Yemen has increased—is particularly cruel.
In its most recent briefing, the World Food Programme states that its needs-based plan is just 20% funded for the next six months, from May to October 2023. It needs significant funds. I appreciate that the UK Government do give money to it, but, as the penholder, the UK should be trying harder to get more people to provide money so that food can get to those who need it.
Save the Children points out that only 6.8% of child protection needs in the humanitarian response plan were funded last year, which makes it all the more difficult to rebuild the lives of children and young people in Yemen. As my hon. Friend mentioned, that affects girls particularly, because they get married off at a younger and younger age and are unable to get the education they need and to progress as they want, but it also severely impact boys, who are recruited as child soldiers.
I pay tribute to Mwatana for Human Rights, which has done a huge amount to document human rights abuses by those on all sides of the conflict in Yemen. It has documented numerous incidents of child recruitment by different parties to the conflict, who have used children in security, logistical or combat roles as part of military operations. Between March 2015 and March 2023, it documented a total of 2,615 incidents, involving the recruitment and use of 3,402 children, including girls. The Houthis recruited at least 2,556 children, and the Saudi coalition forces recruited and used 284 children. There are also 552 children apparently recruited by forces of Yemen’s internationally recognised Government. All sides in this conflict are causing harm to children and young people in Yemen. The harms caused include abuses against women and against people right across the board.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) talked about the arbitrary detention and some of the prisoner swaps that have been happening. That is incredibly important, because it builds trust and faith that people can be released from prison and get their lives back. It can also help to rebuild the family unit in cases where the main breadwinner has been taken out of the unit and arbitrarily detained; in many cases, the family do not know whether they are dead or alive. Allowing those breadwinners to come back to their families and to support the women of the family to feed the children is very important. I hope that we will see more of that facilitated by the International Red Crescent and others; without families being brought back together, it will be very hard for Yemen to move forward.
Furthermore, there needs to be accountability for the war crimes carried out in Yemen by all sides. Important to that—I seek an answer from the Minister—is reinstatement of the group of eminent experts on Yemen, which was an important part of accountability, ensuring that things were investigated properly and that people were held to account for what they had done in the conflict. Again, without the accountability and that judicial system, it will be difficult for people to rebuild their lives. I ask the Minister for an update on whether that is possible.
Also on accountability, the Committees on Arms Export Controls have asked that they be a stand-alone Committee, so that they can interrogate how the UK Government are using and selling their weapons, and whether they are doing so properly. I hope that the Government will support that in some way.
I want to mention briefly the important situation of the Safer, which the hon. Member for Meon Valley mentioned. I understand that there were meetings last week in London, so it would be useful to get an update from the Minister. This is not just about a boatful of oil threatening to leak out all over that part of Yemen, but about people’s livelihoods. Many people on the coast are dependent on fishing for their livelihoods and incomes, and if the oil tanker were breached, as has been threatened for some time, a whole swathe of people would be prevented from earning a living, which will be important in moving forward.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West for securing the debate. I also thank the hon. Members for Meon Valley and for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill)—he mentioned important aspects of the arms debate—and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who has done so much for this cause, along with her brother the former Member for Leicester East, who chaired the all-party group for Yemen and kept it on the agenda. It is for all of us to keep pushing the Government, because a lot more needs to be done.
The UK Government have important responsibilities as the penholder at the United Nations, which means that they ought to be an honest broker, rather than a supplier of arms to one side. I urge the Minister to do more, even in the face of the other challenges for the Government with international conflict, to ensure that Yemen does not slip off the international agenda.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Pritchard. I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for securing this important debate and for her thoughtful and probing speech. I also thank Save the Children and UNICEF for their briefings in advance of the debate.
It has been just over a year since the truce was signed in Yemen. While it only lasted officially for six months, many of its components continue. Thankfully, there has been no return to large-scale conflict. The prisoner exchange involving about 900 detainees, ongoing truce negotiations and the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran bring hope for a more durable ceasefire. However, more than two thirds of the population of Yemen require urgent humanitarian assistance and more than 350 children were killed last year alone. Children continue to face acute malnutrition, displacement and disease with the near collapse of the health system in Yemen, and we should not forget that a generation of children has grown up in a brutal war that has caused deep psychological wounds.
The conflict in Yemen has been marked by unprecedented violations of children’s rights by all parties. Those violations have included killing and maiming, the recruitment and use of children in war, the attacking of schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access. Save the Children estimates that the conflict has resulted in more than 11,000 verified cases of killing and maiming of children and that 11 million children are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. We all share a responsibility to address that dreadful situation.
It is important to emphasise that the UK has a unique role to play in Yemen due to its membership of the Quad—together with the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE—and its roles as penholder for Yemen on the UN Security Council and as a leading member of the Human Rights Council. It is important to consider all that in our discussions about Yemen and the actions that the UK can take.
I will first draw attention to areas of key concern, starting by setting out the situation with regard to nutrition. Widespread acute food insecurity plagues Yemen. According to Save the Children, 2.2 million out of the 3.4 million children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition. The food crisis has both immediate and long-term consequences, as malnutrition during childhood can lead to stunted growth and cognitive impairments and can increase vulnerability to illnesses.
That brings me to the health crisis faced by children in Yemen. The UN has reported that, as of April this year, 46% of health facilities across Yemen are either only partially functioning or completely out of service due to shortages of staff, funds, electricity or medicines. It has also reported that disease outbreaks of measles, diphtheria, dengue, cholera and polio are accelerating Yemen’s deepening health crisis. The disease outbreaks are being worsened by mass displacements of people, the overburdening of health facilities, ongoing disruptions of water and sanitation networks, and low immunisation coverage. We know that malnourishment also has an impact on immunisation. The lack of immunisation for children increases the risk of outbreaks of preventable diseases.
Access to education for school-age children has been impeded by years of conflict and the near collapse of the economy in Yemen, a point well made by the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond). I know how much she and my right hon. Friend the Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) care about what is going on in Yemen, particularly to children. The education system is also on the verge of collapse. According to Save the Children, more than 2.7 million children are out of school and 1.5 million are internally displaced. Many have had their education disrupted multiple times, and 40% of displaced children do not attend school.
The UN stated that more than 2,700 schools have been destroyed, damaged or used for non-educational purposes, affecting the learning of about 1.5 million school-age children. One in five schools can no longer be used as a direct result of the conflict. Meanwhile, functional schools suffer from classroom overcrowding: in some areas, there are more than 80 pupils per classroom. The irregular payment of teachers’ salaries also continues to affect education. Save the Children estimates that 61% of teachers have been irregularly paid since 2016; many have opted to leave to pursue other activities.
Adults’ abuse of children by recruiting them into war is without a doubt one of the most upsetting human rights abuses in Yemen. Save the Children has reported that child soldiers are used for various tasks and are often subjected to brutal training and indoctrination and exposed to violence. Although the Houthis and the internationally recognised Government of Yemen have signed action plans for children in armed conflict, both parties continue to recruit children into their ranks. Between October and February, Save the Children documented more than 50 cases of child recruitment in the south. It seems that child recruitment is even more rampant in the north, where children who have died while fighting are celebrated as martyrs.
The recruitment of children into armed groups exposes them to severe risks and causes harm to their physical and mental wellbeing. History has taught us how cycles of abuse and brutalisation tend to repeat themselves. For there to be any sort of enduring peace in Yemen, the abuse of children recruited into war must be addressed.
Another extremely distressing result of the war and the humanitarian crisis is the sexual violence faced by children in Yemen. As a result of the war, children face an increased risk of sexual violence, including rape, early forced marriage, sexual abuse and torture. Last year, Save the Children provided support to a 15-year-old girl who was displaced due to the conflict. She was raped and subsequently gave birth to her attacker’s child. While in hospital, security reported her to authorities as an unmarried girl with a child, after which she was taken, along with her newborn baby, and imprisoned. Such disturbing cases are likely to be under-reported and are of extreme concern.
Another key concern is landmines and unexploded ordinance. Last year, Save the Children found that unexploded ordinance was responsible for more than half of all child casualties in Yemen. The physical and emotional impact of such injuries is devastating.
There is so much more I could say about the dire violation of children’s rights in Yemen, but in the interest of time I will move on to the political context. Despite the violations I have outlined, Yemen is one of the only conflicts in the world without some form of independent international accountability mechanism—a point made by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). For comparison, Ukraine has nine accountability mechanisms. It is a year and a half since the Human Rights Council failed to renew the mandate of the Group of Eminent Experts on Yemen, which effectively leaves violators of international human rights and humanitarian law free to continue their actions with impunity, perpetuating the cycle of violence and abuse.
I therefore conclude by asking the Minister the following questions. As a leading member of the Human Rights Council, will the UK hold the perpetrators of violations of international law, international humanitarian law and international human rights law to account? Will the Government support the re-establishment of an international, independent and impartial accountability mechanism? We cannot sit back and allow a generation of children in Yemen to have their childhoods stolen. Will the Minister therefore also commit to the UK Government taking all actions to encourage a lasting peace in Yemen? I look forward to the Minister’s responses.
It is an honour to serve with you in the Chair once again, Mr Pritchard. I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) on securing this important debate. I pay tribute to her for her commitment in highlighting the challenges in Yemen and the rights of children there and for her powerful and moving speech. I am also grateful for the contributions of other Members in the Chamber, and I will seek to respond to the points raised. I also express my gratitude to Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who do not often get praised for the work that they do, and to civil servants for their sterling work and support—and to their parents, who might be listening. I leave that thought with hon. Members.
We have had other debates about Yemen in the fairly recent past. A debate on 3 November, which I had the privilege to be involved in, allowed me to find out more about an area that I do not always cover in my ministerial responsibilities. We talked about the issues. As has been said by some Members, notably the dynamic duo—the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond)—some progress is being made. We do not want to get carried away with it, but some progress is being made. From a personal perspective, I very much hope that, at some point in the near future, they will fulfil their ambition of visiting this great country again.
It has been over a year since the UN successfully brokered a truce between the warring parties. The truce has delivered many tangible benefits. It allowed many Yemenis to live more securely and to travel more freely than at any time since the war began. The reopening of Sana’a airport enabled commercial flights to resume, which allowed Yemenis to reunite with loved ones and seek urgent medical treatment abroad. Those are important things. The reopening of Hudaydah port has enabled oil to flow into the country, allowing public services to restart and bringing down the towering oil prices that were unaffordable for most people. The cross-border attacks, such as those on the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have also ceased.
It was therefore disappointing that the Houthis refused to agree an extension to the truce last October. In the November debate, we were concerned about that. The refusal jeopardised progress and threatened to dismantle what had been built over the previous 13 months. However, it is encouraging that the parties have not returned to full conflict and that truce-like conditions have continued. Saudi-Houthi talks are showing positive signs, including the recent large-scale prisoner exchange, which has been referred to, and the door to a formal ceasefire and progress towards a lasting peace settlement remains open. We are cautiously optimistic of a transition to a series of intra-Yemeni talks under UN auspices and, ultimately, to a negotiated political settlement. That is the only credible route to a sustainable solution to the conflict, and we urge the parties not to squander the opportunity.
Political progress is essential for alleviating the immense humanitarian suffering of the Yemeni people. UN appeals for Yemen have been some of the largest in the world. This year’s appeal for £4.3 billion is second only to the appeal for Afghanistan. However, at the annual Yemen pledging conference in February, only £1.1 billion, or approximately 27% of the total, was committed. We continue to investigate new aid partnerships, including with countries in the Gulf with which we can pool resources and expertise to have the maximum impact. That was an issue that was raised during the debate.
As a result of the war, Yemen is now one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. More than 21 million people need humanitarian assistance and protection—two thirds of the population.
Food insecurity has been highlighted by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West and the hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous), among others, and malnutrition remains severe with 17 million people experiencing acute food insecurity. There is a clear risk that the country could tip into famine. The requirement under mahram law for women and girls to be accompanied by a male guardian has been increasingly enforced in Houthi-controlled governorates. That violates the rights of women and girls, preventing them from moving freely, working and accessing healthcare. It has particularly harmed the humanitarian effort, hampering aid delivery, particularly to women and girls.
Amid the dire humanitarian circumstances, Yemeni children are among the worst affected. While the de facto truce is a cause for hope, Yemen remains one of the most dangerous locations in the world to be a child. Last year, at an event hosted by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, we heard from a 13-year-old Yemeni boy, who stressed the importance of peace, saying his
“childhood has been missing for seven years”.
All he wanted was for the war to stop so that all Yemeni children can have a childhood and enjoy an education.
In areas of conflict, children are nearly 20 times more likely to die from diarrhoeal disease than from conflict itself, and Yemen is no exception. Facilities and services have been ravaged by eight years of war. Yemen has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, as has been highlighted today. Child brides are at a greater risk of partner violence, and pregnancy at an early age is a key driver of maternal mortality. A UN panel of experts reported that over 1,200 children were recruited and trained as child soldiers by the Houthis between July 2021 and August 2022. Yemeni children have suffered tremendously after eight years of destructive conflict. Many will live with injuries for the rest of their lives and others will suffer the psychological impacts of abduction and sexual violence. They have also been denied access to education, which was rightly highlighted by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West, the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley. The children of Yemen need the long-term support of the international community.
With your permission, Mr Pritchard, I will pick up on a couple of points raised during the debate. I know there are some concerns about the level of ODA targets. However, we continue to be a leading donor in the world. This year, our allocation to Yemen remains the same as it was in 2022-23. It will help provide food for at least 100,000 Yemenis every month and treat 22,000 severely malnourished children.
The Minister is comparing last year’s figures with this year’s. In my speech, I highlighted that the current figures are actually a third of what they were in 2020, so we have had a real significant cut to ODA funding. Against the backdrop of everything he has heard today, and indeed his own comments, what is he doing to push Yemen’s case for additional funding?
As I said previously, we have maintained our expenditure in a difficult fiscal situation. We are working hard to encourage other countries to get involved with vital partnerships to help provide the humanitarian support that is required in Yemen. As has been said, the real way forward is to ensure that we secure a long-term and sustainable peace. That is what will really deliver the benefits that all of us want and will tackle the terrible tragedies that young people, children and even adults are experiencing.
We take very seriously all the allegations of violations of international humanitarian law, including those involving children as referenced by the hon. Member for Glasgow North West. We have a robust decision-making process that takes those allegations into account, incorporating a wide range of information from the UN, NGOs and partner Governments. Several points were made about the importance of accountability mechanisms, and the mandate of the group of eminent experts on Yemen, which was sadly not renewed. The UK voted in favour, and spoke in support of the resolution during the voting, as the group played a crucial role in providing ongoing reporting on the actions of parties.
We continue to urge the parties involved to investigate allegations that arise, and to take action to promote and protect human rights. The UN panel of experts plays an important role in identifying those allegations. The UK is grateful to the panel for its essential role in ensuring accountability in Yemen. We strongly advocated for the renewal of that panel’s mandate in February, and were pleased to see that that resolution was passed.
We also heard some questions about the Safer oil tanker, which I know is of particular concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley and the hon. Member for Glasgow Central. The UK is not only keeping up the pressure on the UN but leading international efforts to fully fund the salvage operation. Last week, the UK co-hosted a fundraising event with the Netherlands, which raised almost £8 million of additional funding and allows the UN emergency operation to salvage the tanker to now start. Clearly, more needs to be done, but the good news is that the work is progressing.
All of that shows that Yemen is a humanitarian priority for the UK. We have supported millions of vulnerable Yemenis with food, clean water and healthcare, and our aid spending this year will provide food for at least 100,000 Yemenis every month. Our flagship food security programme provides lifesaving cash assistance to those most in need, and builds resilience against famine.
Our Yemen women and children programme tackles the greatest causes of excess mortality and suffering among women and children, including malnutrition, disease and gender-based violence. It supports over 1 million Yemenis a year. We have also supported the UN’s programme to end child marriage in Yemen since 2016, helping to reach more than 20,000 adolescent girls and provide them with education and life skills that reduce their vulnerability to child marriage.
We have worked with the specialist NGO, War Child, to tackle the use of child soldiers and provide safe spaces and psychosocial support for recruited children in Taiz, Yemen’s third-largest city. That programme has provided support to more than 4,500 children.
We have also seen some progress since the advent of the truce, with the Houthis signing an action plan with the UN to end the use of children in conflict. The latest expert UN report suggests some signs of buy-in from the Houthis. Those are encouraging signs.
We will continue to use all our diplomatic channels to press all parties to cease the abhorrent practice of recruiting children into their armed forces and to halt grave violations against children. Children cannot—and should not—continue to be victims of brutality in this conflict.
I conclude by reiterating our calls for all parties to continue to engage meaningfully in efforts towards a negotiated political solution to the conflict. The de facto truce shows how things could improve for the people in Yemen if peace could be placed on a solid footing. Some Yemeni children are experiencing relative peace for the first time in their lives. That offers hope, and a reminder to all sides of why this opportunity must not be squandered.
I want to start by thanking all Members who have contributed today to ensure that this so-called forgotten conflict remains high up the political agenda. That is the first thing, which is very important.
I thank the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) and the right hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) for their specific expertise and for talking from their own experiences. That was very helpful. I also thank the hon. Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) for his passionate speech about how we must consider what we do with arms. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who has done so much work on Yemen since we were elected in 2015. I urge the Minister to use his position to ensure that the UK is a force for good in Yemen.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the humanitarian situation in Yemen and children’s rights.