Increasing violence and insecurity
The people of Afghanistan are trapped in a pervasive protection crisis caused by decades of conflict. The first six months of 2019 have shown no signs of change. Ongoing hostilities across large parts of the country, including ground engagements, aerial operations, landmines and indiscriminate use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), often suicide attacks, continue to cause extreme levels of physical and psychological harm. Record numbers of civilian casualties were seen in 2018 and this trend has continued in 2019 with 3,812 civilian casualties (1,366 deaths and 2,446 injured) documented in the first six months of the year. Mortality as a result of conflict is now the third leading cause of death in Afghanistan with ground engagements, improvised explosive devices and aerial operations accounting for the majority of civilian deaths. Children continue to be severely impacted by the conflict and represent almost one-third of all civilian casualties. Children continue to comprise the vast majority (over 84 per cent) of all civilian casualties from explosive remnants of war. Additional systematic violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law continue to be reported, ranging from deliberate attacks on health and education facilities to targeted killings, and the forced recruitment of children. Between January and June 2019, 117 health care facilities were affected (3 destroyed, 15 damaged, 99 closed) by conflict.
Afghanistan is also witnessing a fragmentation of the conflict and fighting between Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) is generating new humanitarian needs. The emboldening of small opposition armed groups such as the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK) in the country’s East is having serious implications for the humanitarian situation, particularly displacement.
As of 30 June 2019, almost 208,000 people had been verified as having been displaced by conflict in the first half of the year, a 4 per cent increase on the same period last year.
The largest number of displacements occurred in the Northeast (64,435 people), North (50,806 people) and East (50,508 people) of the country, with these areas collectively accounting for almost 80 per cent of all displacements so far in 2019. Many of those displaced have no immediate prospect of return home and almost 60 per cent are children under the age of 18. Internally displaced persons living in temporary settlements continue to face difficult conditions, including a lack of basic essential services beyond the provision of initial humanitarian assistance.
For some time, the Government’s petition system has been causing significant delays in the distribution of assistance to IDPs and has diverted humanitarians from their core work of delivering support to people in need. Encouragingly, new IDP Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) negotiated with the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) in the first half of 2019, confirm that the petition system is no longer the primary entry point for IDPs to receive humanitarian assistance, making the process of verifying and responding to displacement more efficient and flexible. A regional awareness-raising program is now underway to ensure that the SOPs are disseminated to relevant Government officials in the field with clear instructions about their immediate and joint implementation with the humanitarian community.
Cross-border returns and related complications
New patterns of movement across Afghanistan’s borders are raising concerns about the safety and needs of returnees.
The return of hundreds of thousands of Afghanistan citizens from Iran, Pakistan, Turkey and Europe each year, combined with the loss of remittances that are vital to the survival of their families at home, is having a destabilising impact on peace and security in Afghanistan. Since January 2019, approximately 225,000 undocumented people from Afghanistan returned from Iran, a country grappling with an economic crisis, while the Turkish Government has been deporting increasing numbers of citizens of Afghanistan by plane every week.
Increased political dialogue is needed between the Government of Afghanistan and host governments to ensure that returns are safe, gradual and voluntary, and that Afghans who express a fear of persecution are able to access asylum procedures. Additional financial support is also needed to address the urgent post-arrival needs of undocumented citizens of Afghanistan at major border crossing points.
The impacts of protracted conflict are compounded by political instability, natural disasters, food insecurity and poverty. The first six months of 2019 saw unusually high numbers of people affected by sudden-onset natural disasters.
Just under 300,000 people were affected by sudden-onset natural disasters including floods and landslides, a 375 per cent increase on the previous year when the drought meant there was little flooding. Early-season flooding, which predominantly affected areas which do not normally see these kinds of events, placed a strain on systems and resources.
Lingering impact of the drought
The 2018 drought continued to bite in 2019. From the start of the drought response in late 2018 to the end of this assistance on 30 June 2019, humanitarian agencies reached 5.2 million people with life-saving assistance, emergency food and livelihoods support. The drought unleashed a host of problems on already impoverished communities, reducing incomes by half, debilitating health and causing households to engage in negative coping mechanisms, including child marriage, child labour, begging, keeping children out of school, sale of assets and livestock, indebtedness, and foregoing medical treatment – all of which have had an adverse impact on their physiological and psychological wellbeing.
Although the emergency humanitarian phase of the response has now ended, the lingering impact of the drought will continue to be felt by millions of people across Afghanistan into the second half of the year and there is urgent need for significant investment in durable solutions to help people rebuild their lives. As of the end of June, around 100,000 people remained in protracted displacement, predominantly in Hirat, with many unable to return home due to conflict near their villages. These protracted IDPs require support from the Government and development actors to enable their recovery and allow them to start rebuilding their lives.
Humanitarian and development actors must re-double efforts to improve their level of collaboration to ensure that people in need are effectively included in longer term development programs once initial humanitarian assistance phases out.
Whether affected by conflict, sudden-onset natural disasters or chronic poverty, it is only through peace and inclusion in longer-term development schemes that cycles of poverty, food insecurity and aid dependence can be broken.
Hunger and malnutrition are at dangerously high levels and the aftermath of the drought is expected to further impact on the situation with an estimated 13 million people still thought to be in crisis and emergency phase of food insecurity. The wheat harvest that started in June 2019 is thought to have improved the situation, however only for those who are able to cultivate and it will not be enough to alleviate chronic food insecurity across the country. New food security assessments scheduled for Quarter 3 of 2019 will confirm current trends.
The ongoing impact of the drought is further aggravating the poor nutritional situation in many parts of the country.
Annually, an estimated 2 million children under the age of five and 485,000 pregnant and lactating women are affected by acute malnutrition.
Attacks on aid
Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for humanitarians. Widespread insecurity continues to challenge humanitarian access, as well as the safety of humanitarian personnel, and the situation is deteriorating.
In 2018, 27 aid workers were killed. Already in the first six months of 2019, this figure has almost been reached with 24 aid workers losing their lives due to conflict-related incidents.
It seems very likely that the number of aid workers killed in 2019 will eclipse the previous year’s figure. Similarly, there were 288 incidents against aid-workers, assets and activities over the first half of 2019 while in all of 2018, there were 382 such incidents.
Sudden-onset natural disasters present significant challenges for humanitarian agencies in Afghanistan that need to respond quickly with life-saving assistance. Although flooding is an annual event in Afghanistan for which humanitarian organisations can do contingency planning, a number of flood events in quick succession in unusual locations in the early part of the season put a strain on resources and depleted humanitarian supply pipelines.
Looking forward, supplies of emergency shelter kits, health kits, medicines, water and sanitation kits, and nutrition supplements are all at risk of imminent pipeline breaks in the second half of the year unless additional funds are made available. Similarly, emergency NFI kits, hygiene kits, and supplementary feeding supplies for children are also running low and risk a pipeline break if any additional needs arise.
The second half of 2019 holds many uncertainties, both for the people of Afghanistan and humanitarian agencies. The Presidential election slated for 28 September 2019 will create increased risks to civilian targets. The use of more than 4,500 schools and other civilian infrastructure as polling centres makes these facilities vulnerable to violence or damage and may risk parents keeping their children away from school.
As was the case in 2014, if the election result is contested, it may also negatively impact on the humanitarian situation and the Government’s ability to deliver basic services, particularly to remote areas. As peace talks continue with the Taliban, conflict continues to rage and has intensified affecting increasing numbers of civilians. This situation is likely to continue into 2020 if peace efforts do not come to fruition soon. Although a peace agreement will likely improve humanitarian access to many hard-to-reach locations, an agreement with the Taliban is unlikely to improve access to many access challenged areas in the country’s East where other armed groups are active and where conflict-related humanitarian needs remain high. There is also the possibility of significant returns both of internally displaced people and those living in neighbouring countries in the event of a peace agreement and this could create challenges in terms of their needs and re-integration into their communities. Internal returns are expected to be influenced by the agricultural cycle and the perceived durability of any peace. Finally, as detailed above, although humanitarian partners have been able to maintain programming throughout the first half of the year on current resources, they will soon need to make difficult decisions on prioritisation in the second half of the year unless additional funds are forthcoming