Having suffered through more than six years of conflict and displacement in Yemen, including the death of her husband and the destruction of her house, 29-year-old Ahlam had thought until recently that things could not get any worse.

Forced to flee her hometown of Taizz in 2015 by fighting, she now lives in rented accommodation with her mother and sisters in Ibb in the country’s north, dependent on the humanitarian aid they receive from UNHCR and others.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic poses a significant threat to displaced people like Ahlam, given the lack of resources needed in order for them to sustain themselves and protect against infection. With only half of the country’s health facilities currently operational, many of those requiring medical attention would be unable to access it.

“We are afraid.”

“Because of this disease we are afraid, and we sit at home,” Ahlam explained. “We witnessed three funerals in one week last year of people who died suddenly.”

To make matters worse, the assistance that Ahlam and millions of other Yemenis and refugees rely on for their survival is threatened by a critical gap in funding, which has already forced UNHCR to scale back its life-saving cash assistance program.

Shafool Abdullah, displaced by conflict also suffers from malnutrition and diabetes and now lives on the street with his family in Hudaydah. @UNHCR/ Shabia Mantoo

A frail woman from Hudaydah lies on the ground at an informal shelter in Aden hosting families who fled the fighting. @UNHCR/ Ammar Bamatraf


Yemen remains the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with some 20 million people requiring aid and 4 million people forced to flee their homes.

Most displaced people live in unsanitary and overcrowded conditions, making both physical distancing and regular handwashing impossible.

“People do not have the means to actually take the preventative measures at all that most other people can take,” explains Jean-Nicholas Beuze, UNHCR Representative in Yemen.

Despite the overwhelming needs of the population, of the total US$271 million that UNHCR requires for its operations in 2021, it has so far received 22 per cent.

Without an urgent increase in funding, UNHCR would have no option but to withdraw further critical support to hundreds of thousands of vulnerable displaced Yemenis and refugees, including mattresses, blankets, and emergency shelter, meaning people would be forced to sleep out in the open.

“The United Nations will continue to stand in solidarity with the starving people of Yemen.”

“The good news is the world knows exactly what is needed to prevent catastrophe: pay for the aid operation, ensure access for aid workers, support the economy and – most of all – end the war,” said Mark Lowcock, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.

“The only question is: what will the world choose to do?”

UNHCR supports health facilities and works to prevent the spread of cholera, which has arisen as a result of the conflict. A surge in funding two years ago was the main reason famine was prevented, cholera was rolled back and millions of lives were saved. Additional funds make a difference.

“When you are already malnourished or have diet deficient in all kinds of vitamins puts you at an increased risk of getting diseases and not being able to recover from those diseases,” said Jean-Nicholas Beuze in regards to the compounded health challenges. 

The arrival of the first batch of COVID-19 vaccines  in March has been hailed by health experts as a game changer in the fight against COVID-19 in the war-torn country. However, more is needed to prevent ongoing conflict, starvation and disease from claiming lives in Yemen. 

As UNHCR Representative to Yemen Ayman Gharaibeh said: “The world cannot afford to let Yemen slip into the abyss.”

A young girl undergoes a nutrition screening at a UNHCR supported health centre in Aden, Yemen. @UNHCR/ Shabia Mantoo

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