UN prepares to return refugees to Yemen

After last week's truce with the Houthi tribe, the United Nations unveils plans to begin moving the estimated 250,000 displaced Yemenis back home.

NEW YORK // Expressing "cautious optimism" that the ceasefire between government and rebel forces in northern Yemen will stick, the United Nations has unveiled plans to begin moving the estimated 250,000 displaced Yemenis back to their homes. Following Thursday's truce between the Yemeni government and a mountain tribe of Zaidi Shiites, known as Houthis, the UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) is laying the groundwork to allow families to return to their bombed-out villages and towns.

"UNHCR in Yemen is preparing for a potential shift in its operations as many internally displaced persons (IDPs), following the news about the ceasefire, say they want to go back to their homes in the north of the country," Melissa Fleming, UNHCR representative, said yesterday. "As part of the overall UN response, we are working on plans for voluntary and safe return of IDPs, which will be discussed with the authorities in the coming days, providing security is sustained."

Six years of protracted conflict have taken their toll on northern Yemen, with the number of displaced doubling over the past seven months of fierce fighting, Ms Fleming said. The UN will soon inspect Sa'ada province, the epicentre of hostilities, to check for unexploded munitions and assess aid needs. "We are especially concerned about the safety of those IDPs who may decide to return on their own as parts of Sa'ada province, where fighting took place, remain littered with mines and unexploded ordnance," she told reporters in Geneva.

"These pose a serious risk and UNHCR urges caution to avoid any further and unnecessary loss of civilian lives. Removal of mines and unexploded ammunition is a priority before any massive return can take place." But refugee officials warn they are straight-jacketed by lacklustre support, having secured less than three per cent of the US$39 million (Dh143m) requested in their 2010 appeal. They describe an "alarmingly weak donor response" and warn they "may be forced to scale down or suspend" relief work, urging Yemen's oil-rich Gulf neighbours to "act in their usual spirit of solidarity".