Yemen Conflict: Ma’rib Governorate IDP Update by John Yager


An uptick in fighting amid the Houthis’ renewed Ma’rib offensive has led to massive civilian displacement as internally displaced persons (IDPs) seek refuge deeper in the Ma’rib’s interior or in neighboring Shabwah and Hadramawt governorates. The rapidly increasing number of first time IDPs as well as repeatedly displaced persons fleeing IDP camps on frontlines have exhausted government resources in Ma’rib city, which has now swelled to accommodate more than ten times the number of residents it held in 2017.

Houthi advances drive new displacement within Ma’rib

Throughout the course of the civil war in Yemen, Ma’rib governorate has served as a safe haven for an estimated one million IDPs forced to flee Yemen’s northern governorates amid food insecurity, oppressive Houthi policies, and encroaching frontline fighting. A favored destination for its perceived stability, Ma’rib city hosts a heavy National Army (NA), Special Security Forces (SSF), and Saudi-led Coalition (SLC) presence, which has offered a sense of security to those fleeing persecution in Houthi territory. Located in the center of the governorate, Ma’rib city remains one of the most attractive options for IDP resettlement for its large and numerous IDP camps, support infrastructure, international humanitarian aid networks, and work opportunities that offer improved financial security. Nevertheless, the city is ill-equipped to manage the recent influx of IDPs as fighting pushes deeper into western and southern Ma’rib.

In February 2021, the Houthis renewed their offensive on Ma’rib, exacerbating the the humanitarian crisis by bombarding frontline villages and NA installations with a combination of land assaults, UAV attacks, and shelling across multiple fronts. SLC airstrikes have somewhat succeeded in slowing the Houthi advancement, but the onslaught has continued to gradually inch closer to the governorate’s capital. The resulting mass displacement has left IDP camps and Ma’rib city unable to support the rapidly growing number of IDPs. While previous waves of IDPs had hailed from Yemen’s northern governorates, the newest wave of mass displacement has primarily consisted of those within Ma’rib’s own provincial border districts such as Sirwah, Raghwan, Medghal, Majzar, Mahliyah, and Rahabah where intensified fighting has threatened local communities. Established camps in Sirwah and other districts, which had previously helped support the number of IDPs in Ma’rib, have been abandoned amid the Houthi advancement and attacks targeting the camps. Persistent insecurity along these front lines has forced these nearby settlements to move to Ma’rib city and other areas of the Ma’rib interior. Official estimates now place the IDP-driven population growth in the governorate sprouting from pre-conflict totals of around 360,000, to between 1.5 and 3 million today.

Camps and urban centers struggle to absorb new IDPs

Since the outbreak of renewed conflict in Ma’rib, Navanti researchers have conducted more than 303 interviews with IDPs in Ma’rib to inform this report and support ongoing humanitarian efforts in the governorate. Interviews sought out a diverse range of informants from various professional and education backgrounds and included over 28 percent female respondents.

The worsening crisis has left IDPs with few options as camp capacities become overwhelmed. Frontline camps like al-Rawdah, al-Suwayda, and al-Mil have borne the brunt of recent conflict zone displacement and resources have been stretched thin to accommodate the influx. According to IOM, approximately 31 new IDP sites have been opened in Ma’rib since the start of the year, bringing the total to 148 in the governorate. Nevertheless, the limited capacity of the camps has been unable to meet the basic needs of the more than 24,000 newly displaced persons to Ma’rib since January 2021.

Local and international humanitarian organizations have sought to fill the gaps in service provision, but resources remain stretched and needs are underfunded; according to the latest OCHA Humanitarian Update, the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan remained less than 48% funded at the end of July 2021. Access to water, food, health, sanitation, and other services differ widely across camps, with local authorities and international aid groups – most notably the King Salman Relief Center, the IOM, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) – providing various degrees of access. For example, some camps have water tanks provided by municipal authorities or food baskets from the World Food Program (WFP), while others are responsible for finding and buying their own potable water and food supplies; rapid depreciation of the Yemeni Rial within Internationally Recognized Government (IRG) areas has driven up food prices, further exacerbating the challenges faced by many IDPs in Ma’rib and elsewhere to meet daily household needs. Health services are likewise sporadic, as most camp residents have access to only basic services via mobile clinics. Education services are also lacking. Al-Jufainah, Yemen’s largest IDP camp, is the only camp offering any sort of education services, while residents of other camps have been forced to enter Ma’rib’s already overcrowded public school system.

Furthermore, many camps are still located within a short distance from frontline clashes, motivating some IDPs to seek safer conditions in urban areas like Ma’rib city. Nevertheless, even residential areas of Ma’rib city have faced a persistent threat of rocket, shelling, and mortar attacks from Houthi forces as the city lies within range of indirect fire. IDPs with means may seek out housing in residential areas while others are forced to rely on rudimentary or makeshift housing in the city’s outskirts, government buildings, or vacant open-air land. Moreover, access to humanitarian aid or public services may be more difficult in urban areas as opposed to dedicated camps.

IDPs face further hurdles integrating into Ma’rib due to local fears of Houthi infiltration. Locals may suspect IDPs from northern Houthi-controlled areas to sympathize with the group or its ideology, laying the groundwork for potential social friction to develop if current trends continue for an extended period of time. IDPs in both camps and urban areas have also faced additional challenges from local authorities who have restricted freedom of movement or established military points inside IDP camps, putting IDPs at an elevated risk to become targets of Houthi artillery fire.


While the Houthi advance continues at a slow pace, it is the steady kinetic activity disrupting communities along the frontlines that has become arguably more dangerous for the collapse of the governorate. Residents of frontline areas will likely continue to pre-emptively migrate deeper into Ma’rib as the casualty count rises on both sides, further overwhelming the city’s capacity to receive IDPs and simultaneously support its own local population. If fighting continues to progress towards Ma’rib city, the governorate will face a massive humanitarian challenge in relocating hundreds of thousands of IDPs amid the fall of one of the country’s most vital bastions of humanitarian support infrastructure. Over one hundred IDP camps in the governorate would require rapid evacuation south to Shabwah or Hadramawt, governorates with nowhere near the capacity to absorb such a massive population. While progress remains slow, the Houthis appear committed to the Ma’rib assault, an offensive designed to capture Ma’rib city and increase the group’s leverage in negotiations to end the conflict. Authorities must begin to consider preventative measures to avert a crisis of greater scale. Authorities and humanitarian organizations must coordinate efforts to encourage early IDP relocation to other southern governorates in order to relieve the strain on Ma’rib and balance the distribution of aid across IRG territory. Early preparation to guide IDPs along these routes would also lay the necessary groundwork for a larger evacuation in the case that the Houthi offensive successfully captures Ma’rib city.