UN aid arriving at rebel-controlled ports in Yemen, including medicine and food, is being sold on the black market or provided to militia on the battle field rather than given to those who need it most, The National has learned.
The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen eased restrictions at the main airport in the capital Sanaa and the two key ports of Hodeidah and Saleef, following a three-week freeze on operations after Iranian-backed Houthi rebels fired a missile at the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Both Hodeidah and Sanaa are controlled by Houthi rebels, who are backed by Iran.
The coalition is fighting in support of Yemeni troops loyal to the internationally-recognised government of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi.
About 8 million people are on the brink of famine with outbreaks of cholera and diphtheria. After the temporary freeze on berthing was lifted vessels docked last week and at least three flights arrived at and departed Sanaa airport. Two statements from the White House last week warned of a backlash in Congress if shipments were not sped up. A statement on Friday called on the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthi militia to facilitate the free flow of humanitarian aid and critical goods, like fuel.
"I think there has just been mounting concern over the continued humanitarian conditions in Yemen, and while we have seen progress, we haven’t seen enough," said a senior Trump administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "We want to see more in the coming weeks."
Jamie McGoldrick, the UN human affairs coordinator in Yemen, yesterday said that 15 ships carrying food and fuel supplies are waiting to anchor in the ports of Hodeidah and Saleef.
The aid carried on UN aircraft includes vaccines for cholera and diphtheria was delivered by the World Food Programme and Unicef to the Ministry of Public Health. Questions over the security of the distribution chain have been acknowledged by UN officials.
"We are facing a lot of obstacles here but we try with all our efforts to carry on our humanitarian missions,” said Zied Al Alaya, the media officer in the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Sanaa.
Effective control of the Ministry of Planning and International Co-operation in the capital lies with the central Houthi authority rather than via the ministry officials, according to sources in Sanaa. It is a weakness that is increasingly widespread. "The last aid supplies were delivered to the ministry of the public health but the ministry is Al Houthi affiliated so aid supply ends in the hands of the Houthis,” the source said.
The rebels also take advantage of corruption among the UN’s local partners. A human rights lawyer working in Sanaa, who asked only to be identified as Laila, said aid is also diverted when it is handed over to local organisations for distribution.
"We discovered that the UN aid goes to the black markets especially in the northern provinces,” Laila said. "In Ammran province we found the aid provided by WFB for the girls' education support program sold in the markets in big quantities and we reported that for the UN.”
But a spokeswoman for the UN's agency that delivers food supplies to the country said they were confident the aid was going to the needy, dismissing concerns about distribution.
“I have not heard that. All the WFP is being distributed to the people who are on the edge of starvation, the food is being monitored by our programme colleagues and staff, and definitely going to the people who need it the most,” said Abeer Etefa, a spokeswoman for WFP in Cairo. “We’re in a country where we are distributing food for 7 million people. The minute they get it, they consume it. The amount being sold on the black market is very minimal.”
Ms Etefa said the complaints about lack of access were out of date and that a total of three ships had moved to dock. “Nothing is holding up the supplies. It’s just that it’s taking a bit of time to get the clearances. We had quite a backlog cleared in the past couple of days – I think we’ve had overall 3 ships getting in since the blockade was lifted,” she said. “The first one to get in went to Al-Saleef, and it was carrying 25,000 tonnes of wheat grain, which is enough for 1.8 million people for 1 month, the second went to Hodeidah, which was carrying medical supplies on behalf of WHO and UNICEF, and the third is about to berth in Hodeidah, which is carrying wheat grain.
“We understand also that there are commercial ships that are getting to the ports, which is very important, as this is a country that imports 90 per cent of its food.
“I believe there are issues around the clearances for ships carrying fuel, that’s the one element that’s still a bit delayed.”
Adel Al Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, has said the UN inspection mechanism must be upgraded. It has only processed a handful of vessels.