Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 23 August 2019

WFP says Houthi rebels are stealing ‘from the mouths of hungry people’

Instead of distributing aid to starving people, Houthi rebels are selling relief items in open markets

Yemenis displaced from the port city of Hodeidah receive humanitarian aid donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the northern province of Hajjah. AFP
Yemenis displaced from the port city of Hodeidah receive humanitarian aid donated by the World Food Programme (WFP) in the northern province of Hajjah. AFP

Starving residents of the Houthi-controlled capital Sanaa have not been getting UN food rations they are entitled to because rebel-controlled organisations entrusted with distributing aid have instead put food on sale in open markets, the World Food Programme said on Monday.

The rare condemnation of Houthi rebels comes as the UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs said the Iran-backed rebels were violating agreements made between them and the Yemeni government at talks in Sweden in early December.

In a strongly worded statement, The UN food agency accused Yemen's Houthi rebels of stealing "from the mouths of hungry people" and diverting food deliveries, after photo evidence collected by WFP showed trucks illicitly removing food from designated food distribution centres.

WFP monitors also found that rebels are manipulating lists of aid recipients. “Some food relief is being given to people not entitled to it and some is being sold for gain in the markets of the capital,” the statement said.

The WFP said similar cases had been reported in other areas of the country controlled by the rebels.

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The WFP, which is helping 12 million hungry people in Yemen, says it wants an "overhaul of the relief system," including biometric registration. It says the rebels resist such measures.

"At a time when children are dying in Yemen because they haven't enough food to eat, that is an outrage," says David Beasley, WFP executive director, adding that "this criminal behaviour must stop immediately".

"Unless this happens, we'll have no option but to cease working with those who've been conspiring to deprive large numbers of vulnerable people of the food on which they depend," he added.

Years of civil war have devastated Yemen, leaving perhaps 20 million people in need of food aid, according to the UN.

This year the UN, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others have poured more than $4 billion in food, shelter, medical and other aid into Yemen. That figure has been growing and is expected to keep climbing in 2019.

Despite the surge in help, hunger – and, in some pockets of the country, famine-level starvation – have continued to grow. An analysis this month by a coalition of global relief groups found that even with the food aid that is coming in, more than half of the population is not getting enough to eat.

The problem of lost and stolen aid, which has contributed largely to this crisis, is common in areas controlled by the Houthi rebels.

Half of the food baskets that the UN food program provides to Houthi-controlled areas are stored and distributed by the Houthi-controlled Education ministry, which is chaired by the brother of the rebels' top leader.

WFP on Monday said that a local organisation affiliated with the de facto Ministry of Education in Houthi-controlled Sanaa was among those diverting aid and selling food in open markets.

Each month in Sanaa, at least 15,000 food baskets that the education ministry was supposed to provide to hungry families were instead diverted to the black market or used to feed Houthi militiamen serving on the front lines, Abdullah Al Hamidi, who served as acting education minister in the Houthi-run government in the north before defecting to the coalition side earlier this year told The Associated Press.

An investigation by the Associated Press found that the northern province of Saada, a Houthi stronghold, is also suffering from a similar problem.

International aid groups estimate that 445,000 people need food assistance. Some months the UN has sent enough food to feed twice that many people. Yet the latest figures from the UN and other relief organizations show that 65 per cent of residents are facing severe food shortages, including at least 7,000 people who are in pockets of outright famine, the AP said.

Separately, Dr Anwar Gargash on Monday criticised Yemen's Houthi rebels for their failure to adhere to the ceasefire brokered by the UN.

“Sweden’s agreement on Yemen has exposed the Houthis completely in front of the international community. It exposes the Houthi practices and its continued breach of the agreement on Hodeidah. Their theatrics of withdrawal have failed,” he said in a tweet on Monday.

According to Yemeni government officials, the rebels have disguised loyal administrators and fighters in the uniforms of local forces and deployed them to the city and its three ports.

The Houthis are trying to “circumvent” a clause demanding the full withdrawal of military personnel by both sides, Dr Gargash said.

“This trend documents the criminal nature of the Houthis in front of the international community, their attempts will not succeed,” he said.

“The Houthis' rejection of allowing humanitarian aid through Hodeidah is a clear indication of who was obstructing relief and humanitarian work in Yemen,” Dr Gargash said.

Updated: January 1, 2019 12:56 PM

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