Since fleeing their homes in early March after clashes between the Yemeni army and Islamic militants in the southern governorate of Abyan, two families - 19 people in all - have been living in a 22 square metre classroom in al-Fatah School, Tawahi Distrct, Aden Governorate - and they are the lucky ones.
In such cramped conditions, Saleh Salim al-Ammari and his male cousin - both in their 50s - have decided to spend the nights elsewhere, so head off before sunset every day to look for somewhere to sleep.
“We resort to sleeping in a nearby inn, inside a car or in the street,” al-Ammari told IRIN. “Even if there is enough space inside the classroom, we cannot sleep together with women and children despite our being closely related.”
“We hardly find enough space to walk through to the toilet overnight… I cannot tolerate these conditions any longer,” Khairyah Ali, al-Ammari’s wife, told IRIN.
“The challenge is to provide adequate shelter to ensure safety and reasonable privacy,” said Dibeh Fakhr, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross in Yemen.
A dozen families have not yet found shelter, according to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Sabaa, a tribal leader from Abyan’s Mahfad District, where dozens of displaced families are living. “Some [families] still live in the open while others are sheltering under plastic sheets tacked to trees, without access to water or minimum sanitation services,” he told IRIN. “Overcrowded though the classrooms are, those who have found shelter in schools are the luckiest.”
With the climate “too harsh for providing tents… the authorities were advised to house IDPs in permanent public structures whenever possible," said Fakhr. In Aden, some 74 schools have been used as temporary shelters for 20,000 IDPs since May 2011.
Shelter remains the biggest challenge. Schools hosting internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Aden are already full and the host community cannot take more. With the recent arrivals, there are now almost 20 people to a room in some schools. Some IDPs have only been able to find space in school grounds or in hallways,” the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said in a recent report.
UNHCR said 1,800 people had been displaced in the last two weeks, and that more than 150,000 people had been displaced in the south since May 2011.
Yemen currently has almost half a million IDPs: 314,000 previously displaced and unable to return to their homes in the northern governorate of Sa’dah; 52,000 who have been displaced over the past three months in the north, and more than 150,000 so far displaced in the south.
Edward Leposky, an external relations officer with UNHCR, said they had rehabilitated two abandoned school buildings in Aden to provide temporary shelter for some 2,000 new arrivals. The buildings are adjacent to schools were IDPs had found shelter.
According to Leposky, during an assessment conducted with IDPs of all age groups, the IDPs said they would not like to stay in the camps for cultural and health reasons.
According to Alison Parker, chief of communications and advocacy at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), IDPs in classrooms are at risk of communicating diseases such as measles and acute respiratory infections due to overcrowding.
“There is also the threat of cholera/diarrhoea due to inadequate hygiene conditions and inadequate water and sanitation facilities,” she told IRIN.
We have discovered TB cases in schools inhabited by IDPs in Lahj and Aden, said Mohammed Sinan, a medical volunteer with local NGO Charitable Society for Social Welfare. “If the problem of overcrowded classrooms is not solved, we can expect more TB infections within the coming days,” he told IRIN.
More at risk of displacement
With the conflict escalating, another 120,000 people are at risk of displacement in Abyan Governorate, according to UNHCR’s Leposky.
Based on the field knowledge of some international organizations working in Khanfar District of Abyan governorate, it is estimated that many of the 20,000 families currently living in areas which may see fighting, could be displaced, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on 9 March, adding that a significant percentage of potential new IDPs would continue to stay within Abyan, and seek protection and services within their tribal area.
The OCHA report said the current contingency plan envisages coping with a possible sudden outflow of 20,000 households to Aden. The plan will be triggered if 3,000 people move within a one week period.