As conflict flares in the Middle East, civilians face a humanitarian crisis

Child running through rubble in Benghazi, Libya Child running through rubble in Benghazi, Libya © UNICEF

In Focus: January 2020 by Phoebe Ohlin; Editor: Aleksandra Krol

  • Deteriorating situation in Libya:

Ever since the Arab Spring of 2011, which ended the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya has been trapped within an ongoing conflict. The hostilities were inflamed in April 2019, as the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord and the rival administration, the Libyan National Army have fought for power, while civilians continued to be caught in the middle of a conflict that has now been raging for the better part of a decade.

A high-level summit on Libya, held in Berlin earlier this month, was an attempt to reach a non-military solution to the conflict, as international concern over the deepening crisis continues to mount. At the summit, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, told the delegates that international human rights law had been abused in multiple instances by both sides. Mr Guterres also stated that 116, 000 children are being deprived of their human right to receive and education.

It is estimated that more than 150 000 people have been displaced since April last year, 90 000 of which are children. Health facilities, water systems and waste management systems have also been fundamentally damaged, leaving civilians vulnerable to water-borne diseases such as cholera. 

The ceasefire signed at the Berlin summit under two weeks ago has now been broken, as fighting continues despite the assurances of both governments that they are sustaining the peace treaty. The end of the ceasefire has also meant that foreign shipments of arms have resumed, in defiance of UN’s attempts to enforce an arms embargo. The flagrant violation of this embargo by foreign powers is reflective of a larger problem concerning foreign involvement. Continued interference of foreign powers, particularly in the supply of weapons and mercenaries, has hampered efforts made by the UN to achieve peace before the further aggravation of the humanitarian crisis.

Henrietta Fore, the Executive Director of UNICEF, urged all parties involved in the conflict to allow “safe and unimpeded humanitarian access to children and people in need”. She further stated, that the Libyan and international actors in this conflict should “urgently reach a comprehensive and durable peace agreement for the sake of each and every child in Libya.”


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  •  Imminent humanitarian catastrophe in Syria:

With continuing conflict and deepening the humanitarian crisis, everyday life for civilians in Syria has only become tougher while the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator has stated that the “dire and deteriorating humanitarian situation” affects mostly women and children. 

Since the Civil War began in 2011, over 6.6 million people have been displaced and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has estimated that over 511, 000 people have been killed. As a result, the recent escalation of the conflict in Syria has been described as more intense than any other conflict which has occured in the span of the last year.

Furthermore, civilians still living in Syria continue to be subjected to heavy shelling. Non-state groups and the government have heavily targeted Aleppo, killing and injuring civilians in the bombardments. The OHCHR estimated that at least 81 people have been killed between 15-23 January alone. In addition to this, nearly 300, 000 people in Idlib have been displaced since December, with at least 175, 000 children being affected. Between April and December 2019, a further 400, 000 people have been displaced, some of them multiple times.

Since its reinstatement, the UN-led cross-border operation has brought health supplies and food to assist the 2.8 million civilians living in northwest Syria. Although the United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowock, stated that this operation has “staved off a massive humanitarian catastrophe” in Syria, civilians still trapped in the war zone continue to suffer. 

Both the UN Deputy Special Envoy to Syria, Khawla Matar, and the Secretary General have called for an immediate ceasefire and de-escalation of conflict to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe from occurring. The Deputy Envoy highlighted that securing peace in Syria is vital for the overall stability in the region and internationally. Ms Matar stated that peace processes must create a safe environment for voluntary, dignified refugee returns for those who wish to return and support Syria’s reconstruction. Until peace can be achieved, it is vital that humanitarian access to the north of the country remains open, as without vital supplies and medical assistance Syria risks an imminent humanitarian crisis.


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  • Further escalation of violence in Yemen:

The recent escalation of violence in Yemen comes after weeks of relative calm and threatens to destroy recent progress achieved in the direction of peace. The UN Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, held an emergency briefing on Wednesday, warning the Security Council that the upsurge in violence must be stopped “before it’s too late”. 

As the war enters its fifth year with no end in sight, Yemen is experiencing the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. It is estimated that over 91, 000 people have been killed in Yemen since 2015, with over 2 million people displaced, and 22 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.

The re-escalation of violence comes after one of the quietest periods in the war so far, with a ceasefire allowing vital humanitarian access to the port of Hudaydah, as highlighted by Mr Griffiths during his address to the Security Council on 17 January.

Mr Griffiths stated that the renewed fighting which has seen mortar attacks and air raids that have killed hundreds, are a “rupture of confidence and huge loss of life” for territorial gains.

Moreover, he has previously stated that continued violence is heavily impacting the civilian population and underlined that the Yemeni people deserve better than a life of perpetual war.

In addition to the fighting and displacement, Yemeni civilians are suffering from malnutrition and one of the world’s largest outbreaks of cholera. As civilians continue to lak access to food, safe water, sanitation, and health services, the humanitarian crisis can only deepen. 

While the relative calm in early January offered some reprieve and allowed for delivery of humanitarian assistance, it did not last long enough to improve the humanitarian situation. As conflict has once again been reignited, it is vital that humanitarian efforts are not disrupted. To avoid further worsening of this crisis, the international community and Yemeni leaders must continue to make sustained peace a priority for the sake of Yemeni civilians and regional stability. 


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