Jacqueline Lopour is a research associate at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., where she focuses on the global refugee crisis and security challenges and conflicts in the Middle East.
With the world focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, we have lost sight of a conflict that could become even worse – Yemen's civil war. This forgotten war has produced arguably the world's greatest humanitarian disaster and is on track to become the next major refugee crisis. However, too often Canada's interests in Yemen are relegated to a single line in the debate about Canada's arms deals with Saudi Arabia. Why is Canada not thinking more broadly about Yemen?
In Yemen, Canada can make a significant difference where the international community has failed to act, but the window is closing. More people in Yemen need urgent humanitarian aid than in any other place in the world, including Syria. More than 21 million Yemenis are at risk – the population of Ontario and Quebec combined. Thousands have been killed in the fighting, and millions are on the verge of famine. Air and artillery strikes have levelled homes, markets, schools and hospitals.
Canada can address the next global refugee crisis before it begins. The number of displaced Yemenis has increased dramatically, surging more than 600 per cent in one year. Nearly 180,000 people have fled Yemen, and 2.8 million people have been displaced from their homes. This potential refugee pool of millions is only a few kilometres from the Horn of Africa, where established migration routes have ushered hundreds of thousands of African refugees into Europe.
The world is already struggling to react to the Syrian refugee crisis; imagine how difficult it would be with millions more. Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion last month laid out a Canadian foreign policy based on "responsible conviction," designed to increase Canada's support for conflict prevention, reconstruction, human rights and refugee rights. Yemen, a conflict ignored by most of the world, provides an opportunity for the Canadian government to put these principles into action and take a lead on the global stage.
Canada should leverage its strengths in water security and nutrition to lead the world in addressing Yemen's humanitarian catastrophe. Almost 20 million Yemenis lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 14 million need food security. UN and international aid organizations working there are in dire need of money and resources to provide life-saving services.
The amount of aid the UN has requested for Yemen is a fraction of the tens of billions the world has spent reacting to the Syrian refugee crisis. Canada's current aid commitments fail to recognize the severity of the situation in Yemen and how dramatically it could escalate. Canada last year provided $15-million (U.S.) in humanitarian aid for Yemen, or 71 cents per needy Yemeni. In contrast, Canada allocated $173-million for Syria, approximately $13 for each needy Syrian. Both conflicts are tragic, but Syria has captured the world's attention while the plight of Yemenis has not.
The world flubbed its response to the Syrian refugee crisis, and the past is poised to repeat itself with Yemen. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to "make a real and valuable contribution to a more peaceful" world. The conflict in Yemen provides a prime opportunity for his government to demonstrate its policy of responsible conviction. In doing so, Canada can take a stand and lead where so many other governments have failed to act.