Photo: Karl Schembri/NRC. Dr Hamoud Hodeish, Paediatric Oncologist at the National Oncology Centre in Sana'a, visiting a young patient and his relatives at the hospital. "It’s a hard time that we have been through since 2014. The centre is facing a lot of problems which include lack of medical drugs, capacities and types of treatment. We cannot treat patients who need chemotherapy because of the current situation. It is very hard to import drugs. Radiotherapy machines have already collapsed."

Airport closure amounts to death sentence for thousands of sick Yemenis

Published 05. Aug 2019
Three 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.

Sana’a airport has been closed to commercial flights since August 9, 2016. In the three years since, as many as 32,000 people may have died prematurely because they were unable to travel abroad for treatment, according to the Ministry of Health in Sana’a.

NRC and CARE International have called repeatedly on the Saudi-led coalition to lift the restrictions on Yemen’s airspace, and to allow medical supplies to be imported and patients in need of treatment to leave from Sana’a airport.

“As if bullets, bombs and cholera did not kill enough people, the airport closure is condemning thousands more to a premature death,” said Mohammed Abdi, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Country Director in Yemen. “There is no justification for preventing very sick civilians from leaving the country to get life-saving medical treatment.

Four years of war has decimated Yemen’s already-fragile health system. Less than half the health facilities in Yemen are fully operational. Much of the country’s medical equipment including in the capital Sana’a is obsolete and urgently needs to be replaced, according to the Ministry of Health in Sana’a. An almost complete halt to commercial shipments and medicines through the airport, coupled with the restrictions on imports through Hodeidah port has caused prices to more than double, making essential medicines unaffordable for most of the population.

Restrictions on Yemen’s airspace make it harder for people with chronic diseases to seek life-saving medical treatment outside the country. The Ministry of Health in Sana’a reports that before the war, around 7,000 Yemenis were travelling abroad from Sana’a International Airport each year for medical treatment not available in Yemen, including for heart, kidney and liver disease, blood conditions, cancer and other long term health conditions.

The closure of Sana’a airport, means the only option for those in the capital and north of the country who need medical treatment abroad is to travel by road to Aden or Seiyun in the South and take a plane from there, an arduous route that can take 15 to 24 hours and involves crossing check points, and conflict frontlines. In addition to the cost and strain of the journey, some also choose not to make the journey because of fear of arrest and retribution when they cross from territory controlled by one party to another.

Abdo Ahmen Mohammed Qassem, a 47-year-old teacher and father of six, told NRC in January that he had suffered from a liver disease for 13 years and needed medical treatment abroad, but the closure of Sanaa airport made that impossible:

“Travelling outside Yemen is impossible as long as the closest airport to us remains closed. Even an eight-hour trip is very difficult in my case, as fluid will start building in my stomach and legs. It is difficult to travel to Aden and do the pre-travel procedure [obtaining passports, visas, medical reports, and travel authorization]. I wish they would open the airport so anyone who can pay the expenses is able to travel and seek treatment outside.”

Sadly, Qassem lost his battle with the disease and died on June 19.

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.

NRC and CARE called on warring parties to come to an agreement to reopen Sana’a airport for commercial flights, and its allies UK, US, and France to apply pressure on both sides to end their political wrangling over the airport to alleviate humanitarian suffering caused by the closure.

The closure of Sana'a airport is another example of the way blockade and restrictions on humanitarian goods, commercial imports of food, fuel and medicines, and closure of key land, air and sea routes in Yemen are exacerbating the humanitarian situation and leading to intolerable suffering.

“People are dying because they cannot do the simplest of things, which is fly from their own airport,” said Johan Mooij, Country Director for CARE International in Yemen. “The continued closure of Sana’a airport has become a symbol of a country that is not functioning for its own people. Millions in Yemen are suffering from a lack of access to things that we in most other countries take absolutely for granted. This must end, and all ports – land, air and sea – must be kept open.”