Britain has warned of the risk of a “serious deterioration” of the humanitarian crisis in Yemen unless more supplies are urgently allowed into the country.
Alistair Burt, the Minister for the Middle East, said Yemen had already been facing “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and largest ever cholera outbreak” before the recent restrictions on supplies.
In a speech to Parliament on Monday, he said: “We recognise the risk of a severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation if restrictions are not quickly removed, and call on all parties to ensure immediate access for commercial and humanitarian supplies through all Yemen’s land, air and sea ports.”
On November 6, the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen of behalf of president Abdrabu Mansur Hadi's government shut down Yemen's borders, as well as its sea and air ports, after a missile launched by Houthi rebels targeted Riyadh's international airport.
It has since partially eased some restrictions on ports controlled by the Yemeni government, as well as on government-held Yemen border crossings.
However, international charities have called for more to be done to allow a free flow of aid into the country.
Mr Burt echoed foreign secretary Boris Johnson in strongly condemning the attempted missile attack on Riyadh on November 4.
He also said Britain fully understood why the Saudi-led coalition had made the decision to temporarily close Yemen’s ports and airports, in order to strengthen enforcement of the UN mandated arms embargo.
“The United Kingdom remains committed to supporting Saudi Arabia to address its legitimate security needs,” he said.
Reports that Iran has provided the Houthis with ballistic missiles, in direct contradiction to the UN arms embargo, “serves to threaten regional security and prolong the conflict”, he warned. He urged the UN to conduct a thorough investigation into the reports, adding: “It is critical that international efforts to disrupt illicit weapons flows are strengthened.”
However, he warned that those who will suffer the most from the political crisis are the people of Yemen.
“Even before the current restrictions, 21 million were already in need of humanitarian assistance and 7 million were only a single step away from famine,” he noted.
“Ninety per cent of food in Yemen is imported and three quarters of that comes via the ports of Hodeidah and Salif. No other ports in Yemen have the capacity to make up that shortfall.
“Our NGO partners in Yemen are already reporting that water and sewerage systems in major cities have stopped operating because of a lack of fuel. This means that millions no longer have access to clean water and sanitation, in a country already suffering from the worst cholera outbreak in modern times.”
“The current restrictions on access for both commercial and humanitarian shipments risk making an already dire situation immeasurably worse for the Yemeni people. We have heard the UN’s stark warnings about the risk of famine.”
Mr Burt called on all parties to ensure immediate access to supplies to avoid civilians facing the threat of disease and starvation. He also called for the immediate reopening of Hodeidah port and the resumption of UN flights into Sana’a and Aden airports, to make it easier for humanitarian workers to get in and out.
Mr Burt acknowledged that it was critical that the security concerns of Saudi Arabia are addressed in order to enable the restrictions to be lifted. “It is vitally important that the UN and Saudi Arabia enter a meaningful and constructive dialogue,” he said.
He added that the UK has been “urgently and proactively seeking a resolution” to the situation, and that it would continue to support the people of Yemen through the provision of lifesaving humanitarian supplies.
He concluded by saying that the only way to bring long-term stability to Yemen is through a political solution. “That is why peace talks remain the top priority. The Houthis must abandon pre-conditions and engage with the UN Special Envoy’s proposals.”