Hunger stalks children in conflict-prone Yemen
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Children often go hungry in Yemen. Those caught up in the poor southern Arabian nation's dizzying array of conflicts fare worse, a U.N. official said.
Yemen won sudden global attention and extra aid from the West, mostly for counter-terrorism, after a Yemen-based al Qaeda militant tried to bomb a U.S.-bound plane on December 25, 2009.
That is understandable, but ignoring the plight of Yemeni youngsters short of food, education and security is not only cruel but dangerous, according to Geert Cappelaere, the Yemen representative of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).
Failing to meet the basic needs of Yemenis, 54 percent of whom are aged under 18, could eventually crack their resilience.
"You risk creating a growing group of young people who will revolt and become extremely violent," Cappelaere told Reuters by telephone. "The repercussions of that will not be important just for Yemen, but for the Arab region and the world as a whole."
Yemen, with multiple humanitarian emergencies cropping up across the country, offers complex challenges for President Ali Abdullah Saleh's government, foreign donors and aid agencies.
"We know in parts of the north the situation is extremely dire," Cappelaere said.
When UNICEF gained rare access to Saada, a northern province where a shaky truce between the Yemeni army and rebels has held since February last year, it found that 45 percent of 26,000 children surveyed were afflicted with global acute malnutrition.
"We are not talking of chronic malnutrition," Cappelaere said, noting that half of all Yemeni children suffered that condition. "These are figures we have never seen in the world."
Around 300,000 people, two thirds of them children, fled the conflict in the north, he said. Few have returned. The fighting wrecked many homes and livelihoods. Some of the displaced fear retaliation in the 70 percent of Saada still in rebel hands.
The Sanaa government is also combating an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south, home to most of Yemen's oil and gas installations, and al Qaeda militants who attack the security forces as well as foreign targets.
Student protesters inspired by this month's popular ouster of Tunisia's president have been demanding that Saleh step down.
Clashes with armed separatists or air raids on suspected al Qaeda strongholds often prompt people to flee their homes, at least temporarily, disrupting children's lives, Cappelaere said.
One of the poorest Arab countries, Yemen hosts hundreds of thousands of refugees and economic migrants from the Horn of Africa, most of them Somalis, who risk perilous sea crossings on what they see as a transit route to richer Gulf countries.
Last year alone over 80,000 Somali refugees entered the country, while many more probably sneaked in unregistered, Cappelaere said. "Among them we have children, very often unaccompanied, who are at risk of being trafficked."
Among other looming emergencies, the U.N. official listed the impact of global food price rises on Yemen, a net food importer that is among the world's least food-secure countries.
"We need to give Yemen urgently the attention it deserves beyond the security and counter-terrorism threats," he said.
"I am hopeful that with a committed government and also with committed international assistance we can bring about a change in Yemen, but don't wait much longer for this to happen."
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