Yemen's health ministry says airport closure has cost nearly 10,000 lives

By Karen McVeigh
A plane takes off from Sana’a airport in Yemen
A plane takes off from Sana’a airport, the year-long closure of which has led to thousands of preventable deaths, according to the health ministry and aid groups. Photograph: Mohammed Hamoud/Getty Images

Aid groups have issued a statement calling on Yemen’s warring parties to reopen the country’s main airport, saying the year-long closure has trapped thousands of sick patients and is stopping vital humanitarian supplies.

Yemen’s health ministry estimates that more than 10,000 people seeking life-saving treatment abroad have died from critical health conditions since Sana’a airport was closed, said a group of NGOs including the International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council.

The groups acknowledged that the estimate has not been verified independently, but the NRC said the figure is close to the number of people who have died as a result of the conflict.

“Denial of access to travel has condemned thousands of Yemenis with survivable illnesses to death,” said Mutasim Hamdan, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s country director in Yemen. “Beyond airstrikes and cholera, the war in Yemen is devastating Yemeni lives on all fronts.”

There are about 10 UN humanitarian flights into Yemen each week. But the flights, which land in Sana’a and Aden, are not available to Yemenis. In December, the UN estimated that the closure of Sana’a airport had denied 20,000 people access to potentially life-saving healthcare.

More than 54,000 people have been killed or injured since the escalation of violence in 2015, the aid groups said in their statement. A cholera epidemic, which began in April 2015, has infected more than 425,000 people and killed 1,900, according to the UN. Last month, a revised UN humanitarian assessment said the number of people in need of assistance had risen from 18.8 million to 20.7 million, a figure equivalent to almost three-quarters of the total population.

“Without access to safe commercial travel, Yemenis are left with no way to access critical medical care. The result is devastating; thousands of women, men and children who could have been saved have now lost their lives,” said Hamdan.

The NRC said it spoke to a man last week who had travelled by road for 24 hours with his sick father to Seiyun airport, in Yemen’s south. His father, who had liver failure, died on the way, a day before his flight out of the country.

The cost of food in Yemen is 33% higher than before the conflict, the NRC said.

Yemeni rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher amid the rubble of a destroyed funeral hall building, following reported airstrikes by the Saudi-led coalition on the capital, Sana’a, on 8 October 2016
Yemeni rescue workers carry a victim on a stretcher amid the rubble of a destroyed building in Sana’a, October 2016. Photograph: Mohammed Huwais/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen has been devastated by a civil war in which the exiled government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, backed by a Saudi-led coalition, is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels. Restrictions on airspace imposed by the Saudi led-coalition led to the closure of Sana’a airport on 9 August 2016. The Houthis, however, control most of the north, including Sana’a, so a reopening would need agreement from both sides.

The statement, signed by 15 aid groups and published on Wednesday, said: “The current cholera outbreak and near-famine conditions in many parts of Yemen make the situation far worse. The importance of unhampered delivery of humanitarian aid cannot be overstated.”

The groups said that, while an estimated 7,000 Yemenis travelled abroad for medical treatment before the conflict, the ongoing violence meant that the number requiring life-saving treatment overseas had grown to 20,000.

“Yemenis awaiting critical medical treatment abroad now have to find alternative routes to leave the country, which include a 10- to 20-hour drive to other airports, often through areas where active fighting takes place,” the statement said.

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