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Published: February 26, 2019

The Question of Access in Yemen

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By Aisling Sweeney, GISF Research and Projects Trainee

Acknowledged to be the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Yemen continues to face mass insecurity with around 24 million people in need of assistance, 15.9 million people in food crisis, and 2 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) over the past 4 years. Despite the magnitude of the crisis, there are many barriers to aid agencies’ access in Yemen. They include abduction, frequent airstrikes, the presence of multiple armed groups, bureaucratic barriers, as well as health risks and a lack of access to medical services. Access has now become the biggest security question for humanitarian organisations, and this blog will explore some of the possible responses.

The Current Situation

Information accurate at the time of writing (26 February 2019)

The Yemeni conflict escalated in 2015, when an international coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened militarily at the request of the President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. In the years since, fighting has led to a reality in which airstrikes are a daily occurrence, and where ‘the rules of war seem to be disregarded.’

A snatch of hope came in December 2018, when a ceasefire deal known as the Stockholm Agreement was agreed in principle by the Yemeni government and Houthis. A key aspect of the agreement is a ceasefire deal in Hodeidah. Hodeidah is a pertinent location due to its port – which sees 70% of the country’s imports, and on which two-thirds of the population relies for food and aid. Elsewhere in the country, fighting, shelling, and airstrikes continue.

Mutual redeployment of forces is the first obstacle in the agreement that must be crossed. The UN-chaired Redeployment Coordination Committee have facilitated talks, leading recently to a finalised deal on the first phase of mutual withdrawal from three ports. This includes the port of Hodeidah – a crucial humanitarian access point. At the time of writing, the deal is due to begin this week, but with delays to scheduled withdrawals of Houthi troops leading to clashes between the two sides in southern Hodeidah, it is yet to be seen how implementation will go.

Since humanitarians are warning that the failure of the Stockholm agreement – in particular the Hodeidah deal – would lead to an all-out battle with ‘massive civilian casualties… a possible siege on the city and the destruction of Hodeidah’s vital port’, hopes are high that the most recent agreement will remain in force.  While the aid world anxiously awaits its results, organisations continue their response efforts.

The Barriers to Access

Abduction: Aid workers operating in Yemen have recently spoken out to say they are being targeted by Houthi rebels. Members of the group detained Awfa al-Naami, the country manager for Saferworld, last month and held her for weeks until her release on 16 February following diplomatic pressure. Statistics on abduction in Yemen are limited, but data for 2017 confirm the kidnappings of 9 aid workers, all of whom were national staff employed by international non-governmental organisations (INGOs). Most of these kidnappings happened during one incident in April, in which five aid workers and two contracted drivers were detained by rebel forces that raided the hotel they were staying in. The two other kidnappings were lone abductions by armed non-state actors.

Airstrikes: In February 2019, the Yemeni city of Hajjah has seen the highest weekly civilian casualty rate since November 2018, due to three separate airstrikes and the shelling of a camp for IDPs. With such high levels of violence, NGOs present in the country have also become victims; at least 11 Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers have been killed since the conflict began in 2015. During an intensification of airstrikes in December 2017, several aid agencies reported airstrikes hitting in or near their premises – despite having previously shared their coordinates with the Saudi-led coalition.

Armed Groups: According to recent figures from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), 22% of current global conflicts have more than 10 opposing forces, but in the city of Taiz, ICRC staff reported the presence of more than 40 armed groups in control of some population, territory and authority. This makes areas like Taiz very complex, both in terms of understanding the web of bureaucratic barriers that it creates, and in terms of conducting complete context and risk analysis – especially when those responsible are not present in the field.

Lack of Medical Services and Health Risks: Alongside relentless conflict, Yemen continues to suffer massive shortages in basic needs, including clean water and medical supplies. Since April 2017, the country has suffered 1.4 million cholera cases. A lack of access to medical services means that organisations cannot sufficiently protect staff from health risks in many parts of Yemen.

Local Bureaucracy: Whilst the physical danger of the conflict is a big enough barrier for many organisations, local authorities have been further preventing access via bureaucratic constraints. A Norwegian Refugee Council report finds that ‘humanitarian agencies are typically required to engage with between five and ten government agencies to carry out any given aid project. The authority and influence of each body differs from governorate to governorate, necessitating vastly different approaches for different projects/areas.’

NGO Responses to Access Barriers

Reliance on Local Actors

Organisations frequently rely on local aid workers to access the most dangerous locations in Yemen. While such an approach is relatively common practice, there are risks involved. Although access severity – that is, constraints to humanitarian access – is higher for INGOs in Yemen, 22 states (including Taiz, an area with known local partnerships) are still classed as high access severity for national NGOs. Added to this, locals’ ‘constant exposure to danger, and fears of losing funding and jobs (part of the power imbalance), can potentially lead to greater risk-taking’, which could leave their international partners legally, reputationally and morally liable. On the flip side, INGOs can be overly influenced by legal liability, or unaware of local risk mitigation measures, meaning that they lack understanding of their local partner’s vulnerabilities – despite usually setting the security agenda in such partnerships.

In a briefing paper for GISF, Singh notes that for international organisations ‘it is important to familiarise themselves with the approaches and methodologies of their local partners and adapt to the context and the partner’s specific risk profile and needs.’ The necessity of such an approach was highlighted during an event co-organised by GISF last year, in which panellists discussed the security implications of risk transfer to local partners, including the potential impact that local perceptions of an international partner organisation can have on a local partner’s acceptance. In response to these concerns, GISF will soon be initiating a research project on security risk management from the local partner’s perspective to unpack these issues and propose solutions to support the safety and security of local NGO staff members.

In terms of organisational staff, although putting in place different security measures for national and international staff is widely accepted due to their different risk profiles, it should be conducted carefully to avoid becoming thoughtless or hierarchical. This means that organisations need to maintain up-to-date knowledge of the risks faced by both their national and international staff so that they may tailor responses accordingly.

Security Strategies

Partnerships with local NGOs can help aid organisations gain access while maintaining an acceptance-focused security strategy. However, with pressure to protect the diminishing number of international aid workers that are deployed to unstable areas, some organisations have hardened their security posture, including through the use of armed escorts.

The Dennis v NRC case is a pertinent example of the importance of getting the right security strategy in place. It was originally planned that the NRC convoy carrying Dennis would include an armed escort, but this was cancelled at the last minute in order to keep a low-profile. In devastating consequences, Somali militants attacked the convoy, killing a driver and kidnapping four staffers, which left the NRC legally liable for negligence.

However, this is not to say that harder strategies are always more secure. For example, given the number of armed groups on the ground in Yemen, in many cases NGOs choose not to use armed escorts to avoid being associated with specific groups. Such an association would be detrimental to NGOs’ acceptance, potentially meaning that security risks increase and access decreases.

Clearly, no security strategy is universally right or wrong. However, organisations can avoid making knee-jerk reactions by carefully considering the specific context, existing organisational principles, and current community norms.

Inter-agency Security Networks

Inter-agency security networks can offer a lot to organisations struggling with access in Yemen. Such spaces are crucial for sharing experiences and good practice, offering organisations the information they need to adapt policy to the specific context, and helping to identify and understand community norms.

Inter-agency dialogue also has a key role to play in maintaining effective and secure partnerships with local NGOs. Since Yemeni partners commonly work with multiple international organisations side-by-side, it is the responsibility of the international agencies to coordinate with each other – not just on logistics, but also on security risk management. Creating a dialogue between international partners means that local partners can continue their vital work more securely, and without the task of juggling varying priorities and requirements.

Unfortunately, the lack of inter-agency security networks in Yemen is itself an additional access barrier. Current mechanisms for inter-agency security coordination are weak, likely due in part to a lack of INGOs on the ground. This means that awareness across the community about specific, up-to-date risks and norms is lacking, which can deter organisations from accessing those most in need.


Faced with so many challenges to access in Yemen, organisations’ responses usually involve: working remotely through local partnerships, hardening their security posture with a greater emphasis on deterrence strategies, and engaging with inter-agency security networks. In the context of Yemen, with inter-agency security coordination struggling, organisations need not only to identify and engage with the mechanisms that exist but also to strengthen them by involving humanitarian actors at all levels – both locally and internationally. Inter-agency security coordination can go a long way towards achieving a more sustainable security risk management approach, particularly in volatile contexts like Yemen.


Background Information

Security Management and Capacity Development: International agencies working with local partners, EISF, 2012

Going local, going safely, ICRC, 2018


Battle for Hodeida puts local aid workers in the crosshairs, Devex, June 2018

Battle for Hodeidah: Why is the Yemeni city so important and what will the fighting mean for civilians?, The Independent, June 2018

Drivers of Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis, Norwegian Refugee Council, May 2018

Going local, going safely, ICRC, 2018

In Yemen, Targeting of Aid Workers Risks Unraveling Crisis, Foreign Policy, February 2019

Out of Stockholm: Diplomacy and de-escalation in Yemen, European Council on Foreign Relations, January 2019

Security Management and Capacity Development: International agencies working with local partners, EISF, 2012

UN says operations at Yemen’s lifeline Hodeidah port cut in half, Al Jazeera, November 2018

UN target of $4bn in aid for Yemen reliant on Saudi and US pledges, The Guardian, February 2019

Whatever happened to the ceasefire deal in Yemen?, IRIN News, February 2019

Yemen, United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2018

Yemen and Houthi rebels agree to withdrawal deal, The Guardian, February 2019


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