It is a great pleasure to follow so many distinguished gentlemen who are very knowledgeable about Yemen, led of course by Keith Vaz, who is originally from Yemen. I do not pretend to be an expert on Yemen, but for the reasons that have been very ably set out, I have become increasingly interested in Yemen following my original interest in the Syrian area. I do feel, as Mike Gapes just told us, that the powder keg worry is very real, which was why I wanted to take part in the debate. I will, however, confine my remarks to the plight of civilians in Yemen, especially children. It is important that we focus on what it is really like to be a child in Yemen today.
As we have heard, it is now four years since hostilities escalated in Yemen, and the suffering of millions of children and their families has grown worse and worse. Millions of Yemenis are malnourished, with an estimated 85,000 children under five—that is as many people as I represent in my constituency—who may already have died from hunger or famine. About 360,000 children under five are currently suffering from severe acute malnutrition for which they require treatment. Those are eye-watering numbers and it is important that we stop and try to imagine the level of suffering, which has been exacerbated by the denial of access to humanitarian and commercial goods, the destruction and shut-down of much of the country’s medical and educational facilities, mass cholera and diphtheria outbreaks, and almost four years of still-escalating conflict.
The situation is estimated to be causing a child to die every 10 minutes—that was what I read, although the right hon. Member for Leicester East said it was every 12 minutes—from a completely preventable cause. It should be said that because there is so little infrastructure and because, in certain areas, so little notice is taken of who is dying and what is happening to them, the figure could be much higher. More than half of all health facilities are closed or only partially functioning. Preventable diseases are flourishing, with cholera cases increasing in recent weeks. About 1,000 children are being infected with cholera every day. In the last two weeks of March, 40,000 children contracted cholera.
Yemen has seen the emergence of swine flu for the first time. That is not something to be dismissed, because those of us who got swine flu when we had the outbreak in Britain know just how difficult that disease can be, particularly for the young. My daughter was desperately ill with swine flu. We need to think back only to what happened to a weakened population after a serious conflict of our own, the first world war, to know what flu in its worst state can do widely across weakened populations.
Long-term conflict has other implications. In the worst-affected areas of Hodeidah, only one in three children go to school and less than a quarter of the teachers that are needed are still in post. The closure of schools creates an exploitation crisis as child marriage, child labour and military recruitment—several hon. Members have mentioned this—fill the void that schools should be taking up in children’s lives. It also stores up a very real problem for the future, as we will not have educated a whole generation of Yemenis.
In 2018, a fifth of all armed violence casualties were children and nearly half those casualties were from airstrikes. Several hon. Members have mentioned that two months ago, a hospital in Kitaf was bombed. Five children were killed; the youngest was eight. This was almost certainly an airstrike and it was not an isolated incident. It is comprehensively estimated that a fifth of all armed casualties are child casualties.
Since the escalation of the conflict in March 2015, the Yemen data project has counted around 19,000 air raids—one every 102 minutes for almost four years. Approximately half the known targets have been against non-military sites, which usually include places where civilians are, such as hospitals, schools, markets, factories and farms. While the ceasefire in the port means that the situation is perhaps better than it was, there has been an increase in violence in other parts of the country. Last week, four more children were killed by an airstrike in Sana’a. Across the country, children continue to be killed and maimed by shelling and mines.
We must make sure that there is humanitarian access into Yemen so that aid and commercial goods, including food, medicine and fuel, get into the country and to everyone who needs it. Children do not ask to be involved in these conflicts, and we should do everything we can to ensure that they get the protection that they need. It is our obligation to protect them.
The Stockholm agreement was the first diplomatic breakthrough and the first real source of hope. Of course, the agreement needs to be implemented, as many people have said across the House, so that the UN can continue to conduct its role in monitoring and facilitating it. I praise the Secretary of State and the new Minister for the interest that they are taking in this region and for the work that they are doing. I look forward to hearing about the Minister’s plans later this afternoon.
It is simply not acceptable that children face these risks. Charities and doctors do their best to pick up the pieces, but it is incumbent on Governments around the world to prevent the atrocities from happening in the first place. The UK Government have taken a welcome first step by promising to review our protection of civilians strategy—something that has been widely called for across Parliament and by the UN. Updating the strategy and urging our allies to follow suit presents an opportunity to consider the changing nature of warfare. As conflict inevitably becomes more complex and more urban, we must update our policies, practice and global norms to protect civilians. Of course, terrorists may not read that review, but we still must continue to take the lead on it and to encourage our allies to follow suit. We can start by introducing new measures to protect children, such as ending the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas. More than that, we must champion the protection of children globally, demanding that the UN and our allies do more to uphold the international rules-based system.