Middle East in 2021: Despite year out of global spotlight, millions remain in need


A statement from Fabrizio Carboni, the regional director for the Near and Middle East for the ICRC, on the major issues confronting the region in 2021:

A statement from Fabrizio Carboni, the regional director for the Near and Middle East for the International Committee of the Red Cross, on the major issues confronting the region in 2021:

Even though the devastating effects of fighting in the Middle East do not hit the headlines as often as in the past, the humanitarian consequences of years of conflict still must be addressed, most notably in Yemen and Syria. Tensions remain in Israel and the Occupied Territories. And even in Iraq, the effects of conflict still reverberate.

First, on the issue of Yemen, now in its seventh year of conflict: All basic services are down, and the amount of humanitarian needs has reached catastrophic levels. 80 percent of the population - 24 million people - need some sort of assistance. Two thirds of all districts are pre-famine.

An estimated 40,000 people in Ma'reb and more than 10,000 in Hodeida have been forced to leave their homes since September in search of safety. Military operations along several front lines threaten the lives and livelihoods of civilians as well as access to water, food, healthcare, and education.

Healthcare across the country has been hit particularly hard by the protracted conflict and is now further strained in both Ma'reb and Hodeida. Many hospitals and health centers lack staff, drugs, and other supplies, leaving them unable to cope with conflict casualties as well as basic healthcare needs.

The ICRC continues to provide food, household items, and medical supplies to medical facilities and communities in need. And the ICRC urges all parties to the conflict to limit human suffering by protecting civilian property and essential infrastructure. But ultimately what Yemen really needs is for people, institutions, states with influence to help reach an agreement to shut down this conflict.

Syria is now in its 11th year of conflict, one that continues to cause pain, loss, and turmoil in the lives of families across the country. Displaced persons are in a particularly difficult situation this time of year as temperatures drop to near freezing, adding to their already vulnerable conditions in the camps.

A brief word on the Al-Hol camp, which I visited earlier this year. Conditions in the camp are harsh for all, children and adults. Families have been separated during transfers to other camps or places of detention, including separating children from their mothers.

Children in detention should be either reunited with their families in camps, repatriated alongside them, or have alternative care arrangements made for them. Seriously ill people should be given priority for repatriation.

And family unity should be the norm during repatriations. Keeping families together is usually in the child's best interest and is what international law requires unless otherwise justified by a rigorous assessment. The ICRC encourages states to repatriate their citizens and to do it lawfully, according to certain standards and principles, including support to returning children, their extended family and schools, and the authorities.

The situation in Gaza and Israel has been particularly difficult this year. The period between 10-21 May saw the most intense escalation in hostilities between Gaza factions and Israel in years. This renewed cycle of violence has had an impact on the mental health of people on both sides. In Gaza, it has worsened the already poor humanitarian situation.

More than six months after the hostilities ended, the situation is still dire. Restrictions of movements and goods make the reconstruction efforts difficult. The lack of progress on lasting solutions and the possibility to make the life of Gazans better is leading to frustration and the feeling of hopelessness. The electricity crisis in Gaza remains a humanitarian consequence of years of closure and four major military escalations; it makes daily life extremely difficult.

Israeli civilians living close to the Gaza border have faced an increased threat in 2021. Regularly hearing rocket sirens and being forced to run for shelter takes a psychological toll on southern communities. Many people, especially children, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The ICRC is convinced that compliance and respect for international humanitarian law would significantly reduce suffering on both sides and address the legal and humanitarian impacts of occupation policies on the Palestinian population. It would also help restore confidence and offer the best chance of preparing the ground for a peaceful resolution.

The ongoing complex crisis in Lebanon has caused a rapid deterioration of the humanitarian situation since access to all essential public services are under huge strain. The compounded effect of the unprecedented economic crisis combined with the impact of the COVID 19 outbreak and post port blast consequences have increased the vulnerability and had a devastating impact on economically and socially fragile groups. The dramatic and widespread drop of purchasing power of the population has a rippling effect on refugee communities, multiplying their pre-existing vulnerabilities in host communities who have themselves become more vulnerable.

And of course, the major issue that everyone is confronting, including in conflict zones, is COVID-19. But only a small sliver of vaccines has so far reached areas affected by conflict. The vaccination rates in Yemen are appallingly low, about 2% of people have received at least one dose. In Syria they are a bit better but still appallingly low, only about 5%. Vaccinating the tens of millions of people living in conflict zones and other hard-to-reach areas is an absolute necessity if we are to resolve this pandemic. The Delta and Omicron variants highlight how vulnerable we all are when large pockets of people aren't vaccinated.

A short note on donor fatigue: We are short about $8 million of what we need to fully carry out our full slate of humanitarian activities in Israel and the Occupied Territories this year. In Iraq, we are short about $20 million. Even if these countries are no longer in the top headlines on a daily basis, the families affected by conflict continue to suffer and continue to need help.

And finally, a reminder of the long-term impacts of conflict. In Iraq, in the first quarter of 2022, the ICRC will inaugurate the biggest physical rehabilitation center in the country and one of the biggest in the Middle East. The center in Erbil will include physiotherapy services, counseling for families, and a workshop for making prosthetics.

This month marked four years since the end of the battle in Mosul. The devastation there was enormous, and, sadly, the pace of reconstruction is low. People are struggling to build up their lives.

Wars last too long. In 2021 the ICRC marked its 40th consecutive year in Iraq. While we are proud of our commitment to the people, it's never a good sign that the ICRC would be in one country for so long. Long conflicts mean more suffering. The need for this new rehabilitation center is proof of that.

In closing, it is my deep hope that the families who have suffered due to conflict in these countries have a safe and healthy 2022. But the truth is that in places like Yemen and Syria, which have millions of people who need a safer life, more food, and better access to health care, that will be a difficult New Year's wish to achieve.

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