UN pulls half its foreign aid staff out of Yemeni capital as COVID-19 spreads

‘Any footprint is better than none at all.’

A health worker disinfects a market amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19 in Sana'a on 28 April. The UN has pulled almost 100 staff members from Sana'a to protect them from the virus. (Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS)

The UN has pulled out over half its remaining international staff from Yemen’s capital to protect them from the spread of COVID-19, according to several UN sources.

Almost 100 UN staff left Sana’a aboard two UN-chartered flights to Ethiopia – on 12 May and on 17 May – according to one UN official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. This brings the number of foreign UN staff in the capital to about 60, down from 158, the source said.

A UN spokesperson in Yemen declined to comment, but Elisabeth Byrs, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme, the UN agency that chartered the flights, confirmed that it had flown aid workers out of Yemen.

“Two flights last week took UN staff from Sana’a and Aden to Addis Ababa,” Byrs told The New Humanitarian. “A core team of WFP international staff remain in Yemen working with our national colleagues.”

Yemen is home to the UN’s largest humanitarian operation, with a price tag of $3.2 billion. Some 24 million people are said to be in need of aid in the country, and the UN aims to help 15 million, although funding shortages are forcing its agencies and its partner NGOs to scale back their work this year. A coronavirus-related flight ban was introduced in mid-March, and the UN trimmed back its programmes and staffing to address only the most critical priorities.

After five years of war, Yemen is considered extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the World Health Organisation, which projects at least 40,000 deaths from the virus, even if it is able to support sufficient mitigation measures.

Officially, the number of cases reported in Yemen is 134, with 21 deaths, but reports suggest both the Houthi administration and the rival government in the south are suppressing accounts of hundreds of deaths, and it is possible many more infected Yemenis are going untested and unreported.

After five years of war, Yemen is considered extremely vulnerable to COVID-19, according to the World Health Organisation.

A senior UN official familiar with the pullout, who also asked to remain anonymous, called the decision to move aid workers out of Yemen “principled” and said it was based on the UN’s “duty of care”. They said the fact that staff live in such close quarters in Sana’a added to the potential risk, given that an outbreak in the UN compound*, would make for a “terrifyingly difficult situation”. Local hospitals are ill-equipped to deal with the virus and the process for aid worker medical evacuation flights is complex and time-consuming, making that option for infected staffers “tenuous at best”, the official added.

There are plans for “rotating” staff into Sana’a to replace those who were moved out, according to the senior official, but an increased presence of UN aid workers in the country seems unlikely in the near future. In the meantime, they said, “any footprint is better than none at all.”

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The bulk of the UN’s workforce are Yemenis, who are largely working from home but also going into the field when possible. Their morale will take a hit with colleagues gone, according to the senior UN official. “It’s going to leave the national staff feeling very fragile,” they said.

The Sana’a staffers were flown to Addis Ababa airport and allowed to transit to other countries if they had onward bookings. Alternatively, according to an email about UN flights from Yemen to Addis Ababa seen by TNH, they could stay in Ethiopia but would have to observe a two-week quarantine at a designated hotel.

While the UN’s main base is in Sana’a, additional expatriate staff are posted to the southern city of Aden, which is facing floods, a coronavirus outbreak, and a struggle for control between southern separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, both members of a Saudi Arabia-backed coalition fighting Houthi rebels. It is not clear how many international staff remain in Aden – the number is believed to be several dozen – but some have been able to leave in recent weeks on UN-chartered flights.

The UN officials told TNH that the remaining UN workforce in Houthi-run Sana’a still includes staffers from WFP, UNICEF, the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR), other agencies, and its Yemen country chief, Lise Grande

Foreign staff in Sana’a have been largely confined to their compound for the past 10 weeks, subject to tight restrictions on movement even before COVID-19 because of ongoing fighting.

They used to get regular breaks: after every four weeks, expatriate staff are entitled to leave the country for a week of rest and recuperation. But foreign staff haven’t left Sana’a since the March border closures.

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*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the UN Sana'a residential compound was a former Sheraton hotel.

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