The year-long closure of Yemen’s main airport after the Saudi-led coalition imposed no-fly zones led to more deaths last year than its coalition airstrikes, the Norwegian Refugee Council said Wednesday.
At least 10,000 Yemenis died in 2016 because of the closure of the Sanaa International airport, which hindered aid and prevented thousands of patients from flying abroad for life-saving treatment. The number exceeds the death toll of close to 9,000 people killed in violent attacks, according to data from the Ministry of Health.
“Denial of access to travel has condemned thousands of Yemenis with survivable illnesses to death,” Mutasim Hamdan, the NRC’s Country Director in Yemen, said in a statement. “Beyond airstrikes and cholera, the war in Yemen is devastating Yemeni lives on all fronts.”
The Saudi-led coalition intervened in the Yemen conflict in 2015 to support the exiled government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi. It controls the airspace over Yemen, resulting in the closure of Sanaa airport on August 9, 2016, "leaving many Yemenis without safe transportation to leave the country.”
"Yemenis awaiting critical medical treatment abroad now have to find alternative routes to leave the country, which include a 10-20 hour drive to other airports, often through areas where active fighting takes place," the Norwegian Refugee Council said in a statement signed together with 14 other aid groups.
Before the conflict, "some 7,000 Yemenis were traveling abroad from Sanaa airport to get medical treatments that were not available in the country. Now the number needing life-saving healthcare was around 20,000 Yemenis over the past two years because of the violence," it said.
Yemen has had more than 400,000 suspected cases of cholera in the past three months in an epidemic that has killed 1,900 people, the World Health Organization said in late July.
"The current cholera outbreak and near-famine conditions in many parts of Yemen make the situation far worse. The importance of unhampered delivery of humanitarian aid cannot be overstated," the statement added.
In addition, violent attacks have resulted in more than 54,000 casualties and devastated existing infrastructure. 1.2 million Yemeni civil servants have not been paid their usual salaries for up to a year, causing the slow collapse of public services.
“Yemen’s public services are crumbling under the pressures of war: hundreds of thousands more people are sick, injured or in need of services, but there are drastically reduced resources to meet them,” said Hamdan.
“It is critical that all channels of domestic and international air movement are reopened so Yemenis can get help, and help can get to Yemenis.”
Jamie McGoldrick, the U.N.'s top aid official in Yemen, said the U.N. had been lobbying the Saudi-led coalition to reopen the airport so the sick and injured can get out and aid can get in.
"We continue to advocate for all the parties involved in this and the people who control the airspace, the people in Riyadh, the people in Aden, to help alleviate the suffering," he told ABC News. "It's like being caught up in a fortress mentality that you can't escape from.”
"This has become a tactic of the war in itself and I think (it) is really unfair,” McGoldrick said.