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World’s Largest Humanitarian Crisis Largely Ignored By Western Media

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

A day ago, a Saudi jet fired on a convoy of cars in Mawzaa district, Yemen. The strike is reported to have killed at least twenty civilians, many from the same family. These cars carried families who were fleeing renewed fighting near the city of Taiz in southwest Yemen. “Nowhere in Yemen is safe for civilians,” said Shabia Mantoo of the UN’s Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This incident, like others before it, says the UNHCR, “demonstrates the extreme dangers facing civilians in Yemen, particularly those attempting to flee violence, as they disproportionately bear the brunt of conflict.”

Saudi Arabia has made no official statement about the incident. It is likely that the Kingdom’s Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) will study the evidence available. Earlier atrocities have been looked at by JIAT, and – in an April 2017 report – they have admitted culpabilty for many of them. But in each case, the Saudi government says that it was either ‘unaware of the presence of the hospital’ that it struck or that civilian areas were being used by the anti-Saudi Yemeni coalition as military bases. It is impossible to deny the weight of evidence that shows Saudi bombardment of civilian areas – schools, hospitals, markets and residential areas. But they hesitate to take full responsibility.

The Arab world’s richest country, Saudi Arabia, went to war against the Arab world’s poorest country in 2015. In this period, Yemen – with a population of 25 million – has been substantially destroyed. The United Nations has been tracking the scale of the atrocity. The numbers are bewildering. Close to 20,000 people have died in this war, at least half of them civilians. The numbers of those injured could not be tabulated as half of Yemen’s hospitals and medical centers do not work. This means there is no accurate measure of those who come in to be treated.

Life for the survivors, thus far, has been perilous.  For them, time drags on. The war continues endlessly. Suffering intensifies. Ancient maladies reappear. Amongst them is famine. Last week, the UN’s Special Envoy for the Secretary General for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh was in New York. He addressed the Security Council about the situation in Yemen. Mr. Cheikh said that 20 million of Yemen’s 25 million people are affected by the war. Most of them have little access to water, sanitation, hygiene and food. Seven million of them – including 2.3 million children under the age of five – are on the ‘cusp of famine.’ There are now 320,000 suspected cases of cholera in the country, with 1,700 confirmed deaths because of that disease.

Reports have come out of Yemen thanks to a combination of UN personnel, a few intrepid journalists, and Yemenis who have been trying to make their case – unsuccessfully – to the international community. When the UN tried to take three BBC journalists on an aid flight from Djibouti to Sana’a, the Saudi-backed forces prevented its arrival. Ben Lassoued, who works at the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Yemen, said, ‘It’s unfortunate and partially explains why Yemen, which is one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, is not getting much attention in international media.’

Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria are each in the throes of a man-made famine, with twenty million people starving to death. No humanitarian intervention has been possible. There has been little concern from the powers that be. Pictures on social media of rail-thin children evoke pity, but no action. The UN has only been able to raise 43 per cent of the $6.27 billion it urgently needs to prevent the famine in these four countries. The United States has contributed $1.9 billion to this effort. But this is a fraction of what the US arms industry has been making by selling arms to Saudi Arabia, resupplying it as it bombs Yemen into famine. Most recently, when US President Trump visited Saudi Arabia, the US sealed a $110 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia. This deal is in addition to a $350 billion arms sales agreement over ten years.

In other words, the United States is fueling a conflict that has resulted in war crimes and famine. It is responsible – by proxy – for this devastation.

In 2016, a UN panel of experts concluded that the Saudi war on Yemen documented grave violations of human rights that were “widespread and systematic.” What is most chilling in that report is the documentation of Saudi strikes on transportation routes (both sea and air), storage facilities for holding food (including an Oxfam warehouse for food aid) and a water project funded by the European Union. The panel noted that it “documented three coalition attacks on local food and agricultural production sites.” In 2015, Saudi aircraft destroyed the cranes and warehouses in the Yemeni port city of Hudaydah. With 90 per cent of Yemen’s food imported, the destruction of this infrastructure has been catastrophic. These strikes by the Saudis on food transportation and storage as well as on water purification plants have produced famine conditions in Yemen.

Mr. Cheikh’s report to the UN Security Council did not lift the rhetoric of its members. They sat silently. China’s ambassador – Liu Jieyi – is the President of the Security Council for July. He said that the mute members “do see eye to eye with each other on the gravity of the situation” and that they support a “political solution as the only way to end the conflict in Yemen.” Three UN-brokered peace talks have failed, with both sides rejecting the latest round in August of last year. Talks set to start in May of this year faltered. Discussions began in Oman, with confidence building measures on the table. The UN offered to give the port city of Hudaydah to a neutral country for oversight. Neither side could agree on who should take charge of this crucial city.

UNICEF’s Justin Forsyth went before a subcommittee of the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. He noted that the crises in places such as Yemen deserve immediate attention. Funds for relief must be provided and a political solution to the crisis must be found. Neither the funds nor the political solution seems possible in these times. These wars seem endless. Their tragedies increase geometrically. But nonetheless Mr. Forsyth suggested that more is needed. “Conflict, extreme climate events like drought, environmental degradation, climate change, loss of livelihoods and poverty,” Mr. Forsyth said, “all underpin these looming famines and crises. Unless we address these causes we will continue to get recurrent crises.”

Mr. Forsyth was bold to raise these deeper challenges. He left out some: an economic model that favors income inequality and that displaces human labor for machines and a callous disregard for the suffering of vast areas of the world that have not been able to move out of the shackles of colonial-era poverty. Still, the Senators nodded their heads. They are sagacious.

But then they move along. There are arms deals to cut. There are donors to talk to. So much to do in a day. So difficult to concentrate on every problem in the world. So hard to digest these stories of suffering. Perhaps an extra oxycodone with the next cup of coffee?

Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.

Austria, Libya Count Dead As Number Of Migrants Crossing Mediterranean Soars

By Karin Strohecker and Ahmed Elumami

EISENSTADT, Austria/TRIPOLI (Reuters) — Austria said on Friday 71 refugees including a baby girl were found dead in an abandoned freezer truck, while Libya recovered the bodies of 82 migrants washed ashore after their overcrowded boat sank on its way to Europe and scores more were feared dead.

The U.N. refugee agency said the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe had passed 300,000 this year, up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014.

Three Bulgarians and an Afghan were arrested in connection with the truck deaths. The victims – 59 men, eight women and four children, including a girl of 1-2 years old — were probably from Syria, police said.

At least 180 were either dead or missing in the Libyan disaster. Both tragedies were a result of a renewed surge in migrants seeking refuge from war and poverty that has confronted Europe with its worst refugee crisis since World War II.

The U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) said more than 2,500 people have died making the sea crossing this year, compared with 3,500 who died or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said European Union leaders were ready for an emergency meeting, if needed, to discuss the refugee crisis.

A security official in the western Libyan town of Zuwara, from where the doomed migrant boat had set off, said there had been around 400 people on board. Many appeared to have been trapped in the hold when it capsized on Thursday.

“About 100 people are still missing,” said Ibrahim al-Attoushi, a Red Crescent official, and 198 had been rescued.

The migrants were from sub-Saharan Africa, Pakistan, Syria, Morocco, and Bangladesh, the security official said.

The Libyan coast guard has limited capabilities, relying on small inflatables, tug boats, and fishing vessels.

Zuwara, near the Tunisian border, is a major launchpad for smugglers shipping migrants to Italy.

Libya is a major transit route for migrants hoping to make it to Europe. Smuggling networks exploit the country’s lawlessness and chaos to bring Syrians into Libya via Egypt while Africans arrive through Niger, Sudan, and Chad.

The Italian coast guard said 1,430 people had been rescued in operations off Libya on Thursday, and a merchant ship sent to the aid of a small boat carrying 125 people recovered two bodies.

In Greece, coast guards said they had rescued more than 1,600 migrants making their way to Greek islands near Turkey over the past three days.

Police in Sicily detained 10 people on suspicion of multiple homicide and aiding illegal immigration after 52 migrants were found dead in the hull of a boat this week.

Sweeping North

In Europe, refugees and migrants have swept north through the Balkans in recent days, with thousands of Syrians, Afghans, and Pakistanis crossing from Serbia into EU-member Hungary, where authorities said more than 140,000 had been caught entering the country so far this year.

Almost all hope to reach the more affluent countries of northern and western Europe such as Germany and Sweden.

Hungary, which is part of Europe’s Schengen passport-free travel zone, is building a high fence along its border with Serbia to confront what it says is a threat to European security, prosperity, and identity.

Hungary plans to tighten laws next week to curb migration pressure on the country, including using the army, if needed, to help police near the southern border, lawmaker Gergely Gulyas of the ruling Fidesz party said on Friday.

Austrian police had originally put the death toll in the truck found abandoned near the Hungarian border on Thursday at about 50, but later raised the figure to 71.

The refrigerated vehicle was found by an Austrian motorway patrol with fluids from the decomposing bodies seeping from its back door.

The truck is at a customs building in the village of Nickelsdorf, which has refrigeration facilities and where forensic specialists in white protective suits and yellow rubber boots could be seen wheeling body bags away.

In Hungary, police said 10 Syrian migrants were injured on Friday when a van driven by a Romanian suspected of human trafficking overturned en route for Budapest.

The UNHCR said that in one incident on Thursday, 51 people suffocated in the hold of a boat and survivors said they had been beaten to force them into the hold and then had to pay money to smugglers just to come out to breathe.

One of the survivors, an Iraqi orthopedic surgeon, said he had paid 3,000 euros ($3,400) to come up on to the top deck with his wife and 2-year-old son.

Last week, 49 people died in another boat’s hold after inhaling poisonous fumes, and on Wednesday 21 people are thought to have died after a dinghy with 145 on board got into difficulty, UNHCR spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said.

(Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Photo: Syrian migrant family cross under a fence as they enter Hungary at the border with Serbia, near Roszke, August 28, 2015. REUTERS/Bernadett Szabo

Number Of Syrian Refugees Tops Four Million: UN

By Rana Moussaoui with Omar Ibrahim in Minyeh, AFP

Beirut — More than 4 million Syrians have fled their country’s civil war, the United Nations said on Thursday, with many now despairing that they will ever return to their conflict-wracked homeland.

“We don’t think about going back to Syria. What we think about from day-to-day is how to keep our children alive,” said Yassin al-Ali, a Syrian refugee living in northern Lebanon.

Ali, 45, lives with his wife and three children in an informal refugee camp, that has no electricity or drinking water, on agricultural land where many refugees work long hours to eke out a meager salary.

“No one in the world is working seriously to end the conflict so that we can go home,” said Ali, who fled his home in the central Homs province at the onset of the conflict that began in March 2011.

Many of the more than 4 million Syrians now living as refugees in the Middle East and beyond share Ali’s resentment and sense of abandonment.

“Over the years, we’ve realized that the promises made by the United States and others were just empty air,” said Osama al-Raqa, 22, who missed attending university because of the war.

“I dream of leaving to Europe,” he said, in the same camp in the northern district of Minyeh.

“Europeans eat and live in houses. We, on the other hand, are homeless and the whole world treats us like a burden.”

Syria’s conflict began with anti-government protests but spiraled into a war after a regime crackdown.

It has since claimed more than 230,000 lives, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

Refugees ‘Sinking Into Poverty’

The UN refugee agency UNHCR said Thursday that the number of Syrian refugees now stands at 4,013,000 people, with another 7.6 million displaced inside the country.

“This is the biggest refugee population from a single conflict in a generation,” UN refugee chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement.

“It is a population that needs the support of the world but is instead living in dire conditions and sinking deeper into poverty.”

UNHCR said 1 million Syrians had become refugees in just the last 10 months, and the overall number could grow to 4.27 million by the end of the year if the pace continued.

The crisis is the largest handled by UNHCR in a single conflict for nearly 25 years, since the agency assisted some 4.6 million Afghan refugees in 1992.

Most Syrian refugees are sheltering in neighboring countries, including Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, where many live in poverty with few legal protections.

“Worsening conditions are driving growing numbers towards Europe and further afield,” Guterres said, adding that poverty was also driving increased child labor and early marriage among refugees.

UNHCR estimated that $5.5 billion are needed this year to help Syrian refugees and the increasingly overwhelmed communities hosting them.

By June it had received just 24 percent of that amount, forcing cuts to food aid and schooling for refugees.

‘Nothing Has Changed’

In Lebanon, where the government has not allowed the creation of formal refugees camps, host communities are struggling with an influx of more than 1 million Syrians.

That has strained the already-stretched resources of a country with only 4 million citizens, and prompted the government to tighten its borders and crack down on those without official papers.

“The police detained my four sons with seven other people on Sunday because they didn’t have papers,” said Khaled Sheikh, 53, who described the camp in Minyeh as like a prison.

“We don’t have any work, and we can’t leave the camp” for fear of arrest.

Syrians made up a third of the 137,000 people who tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in the first half of 2015, the UNHCR says.

Guterres urged European countries to do more to “fully assume their responsibilities and … extend the mechanisms of solidarity that have been created.”

NGO Oxfam also urged the international community to “restore the lost faith in humanity of an entire generation” by donating more, taking in refugees and working to end the Syrian conflict.

On the ground in Minyeh, refugees said they had no expectation that the international community or the media would do anything to help.

“I don’t want to talk to the media. I’ve been talking to the media for three years and nothing has changed,” one woman said.

Photo: Daily life in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, located 10 kilometers east of Mafraq, Jordan, on June 04, 2014. Dominic Chavez/World Bank via Flickr