THE BLOG

Whilst Europe Focusses on Syria's Mass Migration, A Larger Crisis Is Growing in Yemen

01/11/2015 22:41 GMT | Updated 01/11/2016 09:12 GMT

They have already faced Assad, ISIS, closed borders, and open seas. Recent airstrikes by Russian forces are just another in a long list of life threating challenges Syrian refugees face in their efforts to reach Europe. Despite ongoing discussions across Europe the refugee crisis shows no sign of easing. But, as Europe's eyes continue to focus on Syria's mass migration, another disaster is unfolding. Yemen and its 'Forgotten Crisis' have yet to make the front pages of our papers. We should not wait until it does.

Despite failing to garner the same press attention, Yemen's volatility rivals Syria. In January 2015, after years of civil unrest provoked by the Arab Spring, northern-Houthi tribes ousted the Yemeni President of more than 30 years. The disposed President Hadi is currently in exile in Saudi Arabia, while his loyalists have been fighting to regain control. They now have the military support of a determined Saudi-led coalition that includes Morocco, Sudan, Egypt, USA and the Gulf Cooperation Council (minus Oman who remains committed to a peaceful resolution to the conflict).

Recent bombings of wedding parties, hospitals and refugee camps by a Saudi air-force with US and British bought missiles, are grim signals of the conflicts escalation. If things are to continue as they are, Yemeni civilians will begin to look elsewhere for safety. Reconciling anxieties over violent Islamist-extremism, with a responsibility to provide humanitarian help, will prove a decisive factor in determining how Western governments confront them. Currently, national security concerns are dictating how Western governments approach the conflict, with a focus on violent extremists like ISIS occupying much of the discussion on Yemen's short-term future.

To date, Syria has an estimated 12.2million people in need of humanitarian assistance. In Yemen, the number has reached over 20million. Up to 90% of Yemen's food is imported, and Saudi blockades are preventing food from entering the country. Conservative estimates predict that in the coming months 13 million Yemeni's will face starvation. The capital city of Sanaa will soon have almost entirely exhausted its water supplies, and across the country the wells will run dry.

To make matters worse, their escape routes are just as treacherous as those fleeing Syria. Heading south requires a trip across the congested Bab el-Mandeb Strait (a maritime passage that funnels 4% of the world's oil through it each day, and is currently under the control of Houthi tribal forces). Yemeni relations with their African neighbours have, over the past few decades, been tested by disputes over territorial sovereignty. Millions of refugees crossing these borders would require such disputes be set aside. This will be difficult given the current economic fragility of these states.

In the north, Yemenis will be greeted by the militarised border of Saudi Arabia, home to frequent deadly fights between Saudi-led forces and Houthi fighters. East of Yemen, the peace keepers Oman are keeping careful watch over the al-Qaeda stronghold residing in the northern-Yemeni province of Hadramawat. As a nation increasingly concerned about the growth of violent extremism on its borders, it is uncertain whether Oman would welcome thousands of Yemeni refugees with open arms. With the growing presence of ISIS in Yemen, this perspective will likely be echoed in the West. The European borders closing to Syrian refugees may be shut by the time Yemeni's attempt the same journey.

What needs to happen? In the short term, aid is vital. But the level of aid required will soon become unmanageable, and the current situation makes delivering aid extremely challenging. The ever more destructive war between Saudi-backed Hadi loyalists and the Houthis is undermining aid relief efforts; an issue the West has so far been unwilling to make a stand on. The bombing of Yemen, and the comprehensive blockade around its borders, will need to cease if Yemeni citizens can receive the aid they need.

The underlying problem is that the West's outlook on Yemen remains dominated by the war on terror. The aim of intervention in the region is stability at all costs, and because of this the US government continues to support Saudi airstrikes while European governments avert their eyes. Assuming stability in Yemen has no value other than to combat Islamist-extremists, underestimates the impact a mass migration from the country could have on global maritime trade, on stability in the Arabian Peninsula and Horn of Africa, and on the lives of the Yemeni people.

Without a greater effort from Western and European policymakers to consider the impact of Saudis' bombing campaign, millions of refugees will soon be fleeing famine, water shortages and war, and joining the millions of refugees from Syria risking everything to reach the borders of Europe. If the West is unable to see Yemen as more than just a threat to their security, discussions on how to support it will go hand-in-hand with how best to bomb it.