Saudi-led coalition aircraft struck three apartment buildings in Faj Attan, a densely populated neighborhood in Sanaa, on August 25, 2017. Two of the buildings were completely destroyed and the third suffered extensive damage.

© 2017 Mohammed al-Mekhlafi

(Washington, DC) – The United States government should renew its grant of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Yemenis living in the US, Human Rights Watch said today. Anyone forcibly returned to Yemen faces serious risks to their personal safety from the ongoing armed conflict and laws of war violations by the warring parties.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is expected to announce a decision on July 5, 2018, about whether to extend existing Temporary Protected Status for Yemenis. Since the department’s last decision to continue the program for Yemenis in January 2017, the conflict has expanded, the humanitarian situation has worsened, and conditions for civilians have deteriorated. The US government should not only keep the program in place for Yemenis who currently receive its protection but expand the protected status to include people who arrived after the current January 4, 2017 cutoff date, to ensure that more people facing the exact same dangers are eligible for blanket temporary protection from return to Yemen.

“Not only has the violence that originally motivated the US to provide Temporary Protected Status for Yemenis not let up, it has drastically worsened, with safe return impossible at this time,” said Andrea Prasow, deputy Washington director at Human Rights Watch. “The Houthi armed group and the US-supported Saudi-led coalition are indiscriminately attacking civilians in Yemen day after day, while millions of Yemenis across the country are facing famine.”

In September 2014, the Houthi armed group took control of Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, and much of the country. In March 2015, the Saudi-led coalition, with military assistance from the United States, began an aerial and ground campaign in support of Yemeni President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The US first granted Temporary Protected Status to Yemenis on September 3, 2015 “based on ongoing armed conflict in the country that posed a serious threat to the personal safety of returning nationals.” The Homeland Security secretary extended and revised the classification in 2017, making Yemenis who had continually lived in the US since at least January 4, 2017 eligible to register, and extending the program through September 3, 2018. The secretary’s decision was based on the fact that due to the ongoing conflict, “requiring the return of Yemeni nationals to Yemen would pose a serious threat to their personal safety” and that there were “extraordinary and temporary conditions in Yemen that prevent Yemeni nationals from returning to Yemen in safety.”

Since the secretary re-designated the program for Yemenis in January 2017, the conflict has continued to take a terrible toll on civilians, Human Rights Watch said. The Saudi-led coalition has conducted scores of indiscriminate and disproportionate airstrikes that have killed thousands of civilians in violation of the laws of war.  

Houthi forces have fired artillery indiscriminately into Yemeni cities such as Taizz and Aden, killing and wounding civilians. The Houthis have also laid banned antipersonnel landmines and used antivehicle mines indiscriminately, blocking civilians’ safe return home. The Houthis have recruited children to fight, including forcibly, and blocked them from fleeing from front lines to safety.

Houthi forces, Yemeni government-affiliated forces, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a prominent member of the Saudi-led coalition, and UAE-backed Yemeni forces have arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared scores of people. Both sides have harassed, threatened, and attacked Yemeni activists and journalists.

Yemen’s humanitarian crisis continues to worsen. As of January 2018, at least eight million Yemenis were on the brink of starvation, with the vast majority of the population reliant on outside aid. Yet warring parties often restrict or block this aid. In June, the coalition began an offensive on the port of Hodeida, the “single most important point of entry for the food and basic supplies needed to prevent famine and a recurrence of a cholera epidemic,” the UN has said. Further disruption of humanitarian and commercial imports through Hodeida would have predictably devastating consequences for civilians, as would the inability of aid groups and others providing supplies to get them to their final destinations, including to areas under Houthi or government control.

It is extremely difficult for Yemenis to flee their country. The coalition has kept the country’s main airport in Sanaa closed to commercial flights for almost two years. The country’s two functioning airports are both in government-controlled territory, and Yemenis traveling from Houthi-controlled territory have occasionally been questioned, threatened, or detained en route. Most countries only grant Yemenis entry with a visa, which are often difficult to receive. Yemeni nationals are subject to President Donald Trump’s travel ban.

“While the US assists Saudi airstrikes in Yemen and has banned Yemenis from entering the US, it would be particularly cruel not to renew the Temporary Protected Status currently available to the relative handful of Yemenis inside the country,” Prasow said. “Sending Yemenis back to Yemen could be a death sentence.”