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Joint press statement: Thousands of critically ill patients stranded with Sana’a airport closure

Sana’a’s airport closure for the fifth consecutive year has left stranded at least 32,000 critically ill Yemeni patients in need of life-saving treatment abroad since the first and last medical flights in February last year.

Five years of restrictions imposed on Yemen’s airspace by the Saudi-led coalition is preventing thousands of sick Yemeni civilians from seeking urgent medical treatment outside the country, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) and CARE said today. The airport closure is also causing economic losses estimated to be in the billions over the last five years, worsening further an already dire humanitarian situation.

“It’s like a hostage situation that has lasted for five years,” said NRC Yemen Acting Country Director, Isaac Ooko. “Patients are trapped in Yemen, even when there is a route to save them. For thousands of sick Yemenis who need urgent medical treatment abroad, these last five years have amounted to a death sentence. For five years Yemenis have been stripped of their right to travel abroad to seek medical care, conduct business, work, study or visit family. Thousands of Yemenis living abroad are stranded outside the country or face difficulties visiting home.”

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. As a result, thousands of Yemenis with long-term health conditions such as cancer, kidney, liver and blood conditions have died while waiting for treatment unavailable in Yemen.

“The airport is next to my house. It takes five minutes to reach the airport gate. My son died despite us living at the gate of Sana’a Airport,” said Mahmoud Yahyah Ali, who lost his son to cancer. He could not access proper healthcare in Yemen and was unable to travel abroad for medical care because of the airport closure. Mahmoud has a second son who also suffers from cancer and is in desperate need of medical treatment abroad.

The closure of the airport has also led to an almost complete halt to commercial cargo such as medicine, medical supplies and equipment coming into the country. Coupled with restrictions on Hodeidah port, this has caused prices of some medicine to double, making it unaffordable for most of the population and further contributing to the decline of Yemen’s health system, already decimated by the conflict.

“We urge the Saudi-led coalition, the internationally recognised Yemen government and Ansar Allah, to put the lives of Yemeni civilians first by agreeing on reopening the airport,” said CARE Yemen Country Director Aaron Brent. “They must reopen the airport for commercial flights to help us ease the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the closure.”


Notes to editors

  • In February last year, 28 patients were flown out of Sana’a airport on medical mercy flights for urgent treatment. According to the Higher Medical Relief Committee of the Ministry of Health in Sana’a, close to 32,000 others, who were on a waiting list, were not so lucky. And the gates to Sana’a airport have closed since this one-off opportunity, leaving them once again without options.
  • Before the escalation of the war, Sana’a was the main international airport in Yemen, connecting the country to other international destinations. The country’s economy used to benefit from the income made from passengers travelling through the airport. Around 80 per cent of domestic and international passengers travelled through Sana’a airport.  According to the Civil Aviation Authority and Ministry of Transport in Sana’a, the closure of the airport has resulted in economic losses of over 5 billion USD over the last five years. Many people who were employed to run the airport and manage the commercial and humanitarian goods coming through the airport lost their jobs.
  • Sana’a airport, now a ghost terminal, previously hosted as many as 6,000 passengers a day, and more than 2 million passengers every year.
  • The continued closure disproportionately hurts civilians. It 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.
  • Yemen is now in its 6th year of conflict. The UN estimates that almost a quarter of a million people have been killed either directly or indirectly, which has had a disastrous impact on Yemen’s economy and led to record levels of malnutrition among children, as well as thousands of people living in famine-like conditions. Basic services are non-existent, and over 20 million people – two-thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance.
  • Over 4 million people have been displaced from their homes, at least 75 per cent of whom are women and children, many of whom have been forced to flee more than once. Since the start of this year, over 40,000 people have been displaced as fighting continues in the worst-affected governorates of Marib, Hodeidah and Taiz.

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