Why 2021 could be an even worse year for the Middle East

Why 2021 could be an even worse year for the Middle East

Yemen, Afghanistan and Syria are the countries most at risk according to the IRC Emergency Watchlist for 2021.
8 min read
31 December, 2020
The IRC named Yemen, Afghanistan, and Syria as the three countries most at risk [Getty]
Parts of the Middle East could see conditions further deteriorate in 2021, with a warning from a leading NGO that the world must step up assistance to these countries in order to prevent conflict, poverty and Covid-19 claiming thousands of more lives.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) named Yemen, Afghanistan, and Syria as the three countries most at risk of humanitarian deterioration this year, in its annual Emergency Watchlist report.

All three countries are in the throes of conflict and Covid-19 epidemics, with fighting and lockdowns making it more difficult for humanitarian workers to reach those in need.

The IRC Emergency Watchlist is made up of 20 countries judged most at risk of humanitarian crisis.

Despite representing just 10 percent of the global population, the countries on the list account for 85 percent of the people in the world in need of humanitarian support.


The Covid-19 epidemic means that 2021 could be provide more challenges for relief agencies than in previous years.

The pandemic has added further strains to already overloaded healthcare systems, limited the mobility of aid workers, and led to further economic hardships for millions, the IRC report states.

"We are not looking to identify the worst crises this year or century, our watchlist is about which countries will be facing new humanitarian crises or see a deterioration in the next year," Anastasia Moran, Officer for Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy at the IRC told The New Arab.

"Many of the countries at the top of the list have multiple and similar trigger points, for ways they could deteriorate further," Moran said.

"Yemen is one country that faces these triple threats - it's conflict, it's the emergence of Covid, it's climate change, as well as the challenges in responding to more and more needs on the ground."

Yemen remains top of the list for a third year running, a country where war has killed an estimated 100,000 people and starvation or disease remains an ever present threat for millions.

"It is always concerning to see a country like Yemen again at the top of the list when it is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis. We are expecting the situation to deteriorate further," explained the IRC officer.

Moran warned that the highly-volatile situation in Yemen has led to the number of frontlines increasing from 33 at the start of 2020 to 47 in December.

"To see that sort of increase in new fighting is very concerning and next year could be even worse," Moran said.

It is always concerning to see a country like Yemen again at the top of the list when it is already in the midst of a humanitarian crisis
Anastasia Moran, Officer for Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy at the IRC

Recent conflict in the oil-rich central Yemeni province of Marib has been a particular concern for the IRC.

"The conflict in Marib is in part due to the oil fields in the area, but it also hosts a million displaced people," said the IRC officer.

"So while there might be strategic reasons for why the conflict is moving there, it is also an area with a highly-vulnerable population."

The targeting of a unity government delegation at Aden airport on Wednesday threatens to further escalate fighting between the Houthi north and authorities in the south. In a worrying sign of the new tensions, Saudi-led coalition airstrikes reportedly hit Houthi areas on Thursday.


The UN has already reported "famine-like conditions" in parts of Yemen, where almost half the population is facing hunger and food insecurity.

A report from the UN's Integrated Food Security Phase Classification earlier in December indicated that 54 percent of Yemen's population - around 16.2 million people - will likely face high-levels of acute food insecurity between January and June 2021.

It also reported that 16,500 Yemenis are already experiencing a "catastrophic, famine like, situation" with the risk of the numbers rising in the coming months.

Intensified fighting will undoubtedly make it more difficult for relief agencies to reach those in need of aid and most at risk from Covid-19, due to a lack of access to healthcare facilities and malnutrition.

Covid-19 represents a multifaceted threat to Yemen, not only due to the devastating effects of the disease on the vulnerable population but also due to other factors.

"Covid has been devastating for Yemen… there is the health impact along with the secondary one, such as other health needs being exacerbated and the loss of livelihoods," said Moran.

"In a place like Yemen we see that years of conflict have made it particularly difficult to deal with this disease and the wider crisis it has created."

Added to this are logistical issues in distributing aid in Yemen due to blockades, the closure of airports and ports, and the regular pilfering of humanitarian supplies by militias.

An ACAPS humanitarian access overview - an index showing the challenges in providing relief to vulnerable populations - has put Yemen and Syria in its highest category, along with Eritrea and Libya.

"Yemen is one of the most challenging operating environments, logistically it's very difficult, whether it is supplies moving into the country or around, conflict obviously complicates supplies," said Moran.

Relief agencies - already affected by bureaucratic constraints inside Yemen - will likely see further challenges in providing support due to a dramatic drop in funding this year.

In its most recent aid pledge for Yemen, Saudi Arabia promised only roughly a third of the amount it did for the previous year.

"We are seeing some of the biggest donors cut funding. That sort of gap is really difficult to make up which has made it such a catastrophic funding year for Yemen," said Moran.

Conflict and instability

The humanitarian situation in Afghanistan, which is second on the watchlist, has also been adversely affected by a spike in violence, leaving around half the population in need of aid - a 150 percent increase from the previous year.

The ICR fears there could be more intense fighting in Afghanistan next year, where 3 million have been internally displaced due to conflict and another 1.2 million due to natural disasters.

Although ongoing talks between the Afghan government and Taliban have brought hopes for peace, conflict is also present across much of the country.

Even if a peace deal is achieved, Afghanistan will still likely be plagued by violence from the Islamic State group and other militants, who have targeted health facilities across the country forcing 35 centres to close their doors in 2020, the IRC report stated.

Populations in Syria are also dealing with a mass Covid-19 outbreak, extreme food and medicine shortages, as well as mass displacement.

The destruction of around 50 percent of the country's healthcare facilities - mostly due to regime and Russian airstrikes - has made the Covid-19 situation almost unmanageable in many parts of the country.

The disease has been devastating in regime and opposition areas, as well as the autonomous northeast region, leading to huge economic and health repercussions for the general populations.

The Lebanese financial crisis has also been felt in Syria, due to a slump in cash outflows and exports from its neighbour.

The collapse of the Syrian lira, in part due to foreign currency shortages, has made basics such as bread and fuel increasingly unaffordable for many Syrians.

Although frontlines in Syria's northwest have been quieter since a Turkish-Russian ceasefire deal was agreed in March, Syria remains vulnerable to another major outbreak in fighting, particularly when the threat of Covid-19 subsides.

A massive offensive regime offensive on Idlib province between September 2019 and March 2020 led to more than a million displaced and thousands killed.

Lebanon was a new addition to the Emergency Watchlist for 2021, due to the worsening economic crisis in the country.

Lebanon was a new addition to the Emergency Watchlist for 2021, due to the worsening economic crisis in the country

Lebanon's Prime Minister Hassan Diab revealed this week that international donors are unwilling to support Beirut in the financial crisis, due to powerful role of Hezbollah in Lebanese politics.

He told Reuters that the government reserves can cover just six more months of subsidies for fuel and wheat, which would undoubtedly lead to further hardships for Lebanese and Syrian refugees.

The US and other potential donors have demanded the Lebanese government fix its corruption problem before more funding is made available to Beirut.

The 4 August Port of Beirut blast, which killed more than 200 people and damaged large parts of the capital, has also made the issue of aid a critical one.

"This is a country that was in the midst of a political and economic crisis and has now been hit hard by the devastating impact of the 4 August explosion. We are seeing a new emergency emerging, in a country that was already contending with such much uncertainty and unrest," said Moran.

Palestine was one of the four new countries added to the list for 2021, due to the fragile security situation and humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

"It was facing a collapsing economy, high unemployment rates, and a humanitarian crisis, and now Covid has come on top of that compounding these existing threats," said Moran.

"You have already had a decade lockdown, but now you have further restrictions related to Covid, so it is further isolating Gaza and restricting the ability of people to access basic humanitarian supplies."

Although the IRC does not work in the Palestinian Territories, the organisation has been monitoring the situation and is concerned by the rising political escalation and other economic factors.

"This should be an indicator that we are really concerned about the next 12 months where there could be a major escalation," said Moran, explaining why Palestine was added to the Emergency Watchlist for 2021.

"We are also seeing more demolitions of homes, more constraints, so there are a number of indicators that 2021 could be a worse one for the Palestine than previous years."

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin