Houthis force UN to suspend crucial cash aid to 9 million Yemenis

CAIRO: The UN children’s agency on Wednesday suspended cash transfers to 9 million of Yemen’s most impoverished citizens under pressure from Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

The move comes at a time when Yemen’s local currency has been deteriorating, increasing prices of food and fuel, and sparking fears of a worsening humanitarian crisis.

UNICEF said the decision came after it was unable to set up a call center to get feedback from beneficiaries, without providing further details.

Two individuals familiar with the program said the Iran-backed Houthi militia who control northern Yemen hindered the launch of the call center because they feared it might reveal their manipulation of the cash transfers. The two spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals from the rebels.

The militia have repeatedly been accused of diverting aid to their supporters.

Last week, Houthi security authorities banned the country director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency from returning to Yemen, according to two individuals familiar with the situation.

The agency has been under pressure from Houthis to use the rebels’ beneficiary lists in aid distribution and to use Houthi-linked staffers in ADRA-run health facilities. 

When ADRA chief Ephraim Palmero objected, he was notified that he wouldn’t be allowed to return to the country, the individuals said.

ADRA is among the most active international relief agencies working in delivering aid to millions of impoverished Yemenis.

The suspended UNICEF payment is the third since the project was launched in August 2017. UNICEF has said the cash transfers are a “lifeline” to a third of Yemen’s people and “contribute to avert the risk of famine and allowed targeted families to buy food and medicine.”

The value of the Yemeni rial has been in a steady freefall. The rial traded at 800 to the dollar earlier this week, causing immediate price hikes in goods and prompting Saudi Arabia to inject $200 million to shore up Yemen’s Central Bank reserves. Before the civil war erupted in 2014, the rial was around 215 to the dollar.

With 8.4 million people not knowing where their next meal will come from, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned last month that a further slide in the rial could result in an additional 3.5 million Yemenis becoming food insecure, and that more than 2 million are “likely to be at a heightened risk of famine.”

The Houthis have put restrictions on delivery and distribution of aid to some 19 million Yemeni living in rebel-controlled lands.

In southern Yemen, where Houthis were pushed out two years ago by pro-government forces backed by the Arab coalition, international relief agencies are also facing security challenges.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Tuesday that it suspended its operation in Dhale after staffers came under attack a day earlier. It said no one was injured in the attack.

The Houthis sparked Yemen’s civil war when they seized the capital Sanaa in 2014.

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