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Five years of closure: Here are five urgent reasons to reopen Sana’a Airport

Three young girls standing next to each other

On August 9, 2016, the Saudi-led Coalition imposed restrictions on Yemen’s airspace resulting in the closure of Sana’a airport to commercial flights trapping millions of Yemenis in a war zone, and preventing the free movement of humanitarian and commercial goods from entering through this route. Five years later, the airport has still not reopened.

Here are five reasons why NRC and CARE are calling on the Saudi-led coalition, Internationally Recognised Government of Yemen and Ansar Allah, to come to an agreement on reopening Sana’a airport for commercial flights.  We are also calling on the UN Security Council, UK, France and the US to apply pressure on all sides to end their political deadlock over the airport to ease the humanitarian suffering caused by the closure.

1) It will save thousands of lives and prevent premature deaths

It’s like a hostage situation that has lasted for five years. Thousands of patients are trapped in Yemen, even if there is a route to save them.

For thousands of sick Yemeni’s in need of urgent medical treatment abroad, these last five years have amounted to a death sentence.  Many, with long-term health conditions such as cancer, kidney, liver and blood conditions died while waiting for treatment unavailable in Yemen.  In February last year, 28 patients were flown out of Sana’a airport on medical mercy flights for urgent treatment.  Close to 32,000 others, who were on a waiting list, were not so lucky. The gates to Sana’a airport have swung shut since this one off opportunity.

Mahmoud Yahya Ali recently lost one of his sons to cancer.  Two of his sons were on a waiting list to get treatment for cancer abroad. They missed out on limited seats available on medical mercy flights out of Sana’a last year. One of his sons Shawqi died in July 2020, while Mahmoud was trying to take him by car to Aden airport to get him treatment outside the country. The 15-20 hour car journey to Aden airport in the south, one of the only other airports accessible to them was too much for Shawqi in his condition.

2) Yemenis will have more freedom to move in and out

Sana’a airport was the gateway connecting millions of Yemenis to the outside world, serving as the country’s main airport.  For five years Yemeni’s have been stripped off their right to travel abroad to seek medical care, conduct business or get to jobs, to study or visit family.  Sana’a airport, now a ghost terminal, previously hosted as many as 6000 passengers a day, and more than 2 million passengers every year.  Hundreds of students have missed opportunities to study abroad or take up scholarships.  Thousands of Yemenis living abroad are stranded outside the country or face difficulties visiting home, as alternative routes from the south of the country are more expensive, and travel involves taking long and sometimes dangerous journeys, crossing many checkpoints and conflict frontlines via land routes.

3) It will be quicker, easier and cheaper to move commercial goods and humanitarian aid in to the country

The closure of Sana’a airport has led to an almost complete halt to commercial cargo such as medicines, medical supplies and equipment coming in to the country.  This coupled with restrictions on Hodeida port has caused prices of some medicines to double, making it unaffordable for most of the population. This is further contributing to the decline of Yemen’s health system already decimated by the conflict.  Before the restrictions food and other equipment needed by the private sector were also transported through the airport.  Once the air freight stopped, prices rose dramatically due to the increased operational costs to ship goods through ports and transport them by long distances via road.

4) It’s good for the economy

According to the Civil Aviation Authority in Sana’a, the closure of the airport has resulted in the loss of 788 million dollars over the last five years. Before the escalation of the war, Sana’a was the main international airport in Yemen, connecting the country to other international destinations. It had the highest number of passengers, number of airlines operating, and volumes of cargo. Many private sector businesses, and government employees and bodies used the airport to travel outside the country to conduct business.

The country’s economy used to benefit from the income made from passengers travelling through the airport. Around 80 percent of domestic and international passengers travelled through Sana’a airport.  Many people who were employed to run the airport and manage the commercial and humanitarian goods coming through the airport lost their jobs.

 A combination of the airport closure and restrictions on Yemen’s imports is crushing what remains of Yemen’s economy.

5) It can build confidence towards peace

The reopening of Sana’a airport will give sick Yemenis a lifeline and ease the humanitarian situation. The closure of Sana’a airport and restrictions on commercial imports and humanitarian goods, and movement of people through the airport disproportionately hurts civilians and therefore violates the laws of war according to the UN Human Rights Council.

Under UN Security Council Resolution 2451, warring parties are urged to work with the UN Special Envoy to reopen the safe and secure operation of Sana’a airport for commercial flights but there has been a lack of progress to date because of disputes by conflict parties over the terms of the reopening of Sana’a airport.  As well as alleviating humanitarian suffering, and preventing thousands of premature deaths the reopening of Sana’a Airport could act as a confidence-building step in support of the UN led peace process in Yemen.


Read CARE & NRC joint statement on the fifth year of Sana’a Airport closure:
Thousands of critically ill patients stranded with Sana’a airport closure

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