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Coronavirus: Yemen child marriages and begging on rise as virus spreads, says UN

Refugee agency says its work in the war-torn country is near a 'potential breaking point' as pandemic worsens
The UNHCR provides cash assistance programmes to some one million people who are internally displaced (AFP)

The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that its work in Yemen was near a "potential breaking point" as the coronavirus spreads, with rising numbers of families resorting to begging, child labour and the marrying of children.

Around 80 percent of Yemen's malnourished population relies on humanitarian assistance, making it the world's biggest humanitarian crisis even before the coronavirus hit.

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Last week, the United Nations said Yemen's healthcare system "has in effect collapsed," with the virus thought to be spreading throughout the war-torn country, and appealed for urgent funding.

"We are reaching a potential breaking point in our programmes where if we don't receive further funding soon, many of our programmes and particularly our cash assistance programmes to internally displaced Yemenis may have to stop," said Charlie Yaxley, UNHCR spokesman, at a virtual briefing.

"We are seeing a growing number of families resorting to harmful coping mechanisms such as begging, child labour and marrying of children to survive."

The UNHCR provides cash assistance programmes to some one million people who are internally displaced and rely on the money for food, medicines and shelter, he said.

'Acute malnutrition'

Yemen, whose population has among the world's lowest immunity levels to disease, is divided between the Saudi-backed government based in Aden and Houthi rebels in the north.

Saudi Arabia, leader of a western-backed military coalition fighting the Houthis, and the UN are due to co-host a virtual pledging conference on 2 June.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said on Tuesday it had received around 15 percent of the funding required for the $3.38bn 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Yemen, with the United States the top donor.

"The humanitarian situation in Yemen could spin out of control as Covid-19 threatens a population already weakened by years of conflict," World Food Programme (WFP) spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs said at the same briefing, saying the pandemic was threatening food imports.

"WFP expects coronavirus to push many more children in Yemen into acute malnutrition," she added, saying over two million children were already suffering from it.