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Regular Press Briefing by the Information Service, 13 August 2021 - Situation in Afghanistan

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Situation in Afghanistan

Shabia Mantoo, for the United Nations Refugees Agency (UNHCR), said the human toll of spiralling hostilities in Afghanistan was immense. The United Nations Assistance Mission had warned that without a significant de-escalation in violence, Afghanistan was on course to witness the highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since the UN’s records began.

UNHCR was particularly worried about the impact of the conflict on women and girls. Some 80 per cent of nearly 250,000 Afghans forced to flee since the end of May were women and children. Some 400,000 civilians had been forced from their homes since the beginning of the year, joining 2.9 million Afghans already internally displaced across the country at the end of 2020. The overwhelming majority of Afghans forced to flee remained within the country, as close to their homes as fighting would allow. Since the beginning of this year, nearly 120,000 Afghans had fled from rural areas and provincial towns to Kabul province.

UNHCR was urging the international community to urgently step up its support to respond to this displacement crisis. UNHCR’s own teams, as part of the broader UN effort, had assessed the needs of almost 400,000 internally displaced civilians this year. Responding initially to the most critical priorities, UNHCR was providing food, shelter, hygiene and sanitary kits and other lifesaving assistance, together with partners.

UNHCR was calling on neighbouring countries to keep their borders open in light of the intensifying crisis in Afghanistan. It stood ready to help national authorities scale up humanitarian responses as needed.

In the context of generalized insecurity in many parts of Afghanistan, it was also clear that Afghans outside of the country may have international protection needs. States were called to ensure they were able to seek safety, regardless of their current legal status. UNHCR welcomed the actions taken by several states to temporarily halt deportations of failed asylum-seekers. UNHCR called for a permanent ceasefire and a negotiated settlement in the interests of the Afghan people.

Tomson Phiri, for the World Food Programme (WFP), warned of a worsening food security situation in Afghanistan. One in three Afghans were acutely food insecure today – equivalent to 14 million people in IPC Phase 3 or worse. Some 2 million children needed nutrition treatment. The country had been hit by a second drought episode in four years and a below average harvest was projected. WFP feared a larger tide of hunger was fast approaching. The situation had all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The price of both wheat and wheat flour remained much higher than pre-COVID levels. In the last three months, WFP had provided food and nutrition assistance to 4.1 million people. But it was not enough. WFP’s plan was to scale-up assistance to reach 9 million people by December.

WFP would preposition food closest to people’s homes. WFP had six field offices with total warehousing capacity of 52,000 tons. Using a fleet 144-truck strong, WFP could transport 12,000 tons per month. Plans were underway to boost capacity to 40,000 MT per month. WFP provided cash transfers and had disbursed 26.6 million USD between January and June. But WFP was severely under-resourced and was calling for $200 million to get it through to the end of the year.

Mr. LeBlanc, for the United Nations Information Service (UNIS), said the Secretary-General was following, with deep concern, developments in Afghanistan, including the latest fighting in Herat and Kandahar. Mr. Guterres was particularly concerned about the shift of fighting to urban areas, where the potential for civilian harm was even greater. The Secretary-General hoped that the discussions this week in Doha between representatives of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and Taliban, along with regional and international envoys, would restore the pathway to a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The United Nations stood ready to contribute to such a settlement and remained focused on providing assistance to the increasing number of Afghans in need.

Answering questions from journalists, Jens Laerke, for Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said the UN had had a humanitarian presence in Afghanistan for the last 70 years. OCHA would stay and deliver for the Afghan people. OCHA was working with 156 humanitarian partners inside Afghanistan, to the benefit of some 8 million Afghans in 2021 alone. As humanitarians, OCHA would engage with anyone, including the Taliban, if it pertained to accessing people in need, and if that access was for delivery of humanitarian assistance based on the core humanitarian principles of complete neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

The recent, massive displacements were creating challenges in the dispensing of aid in urban areas. Assessment missions were being conducted on how to adapt the response. Some 21,000 IDPs had been recorded in Kabul, with reports of thousands more rushing in. A growing number of those people had no place to sleep.

Answering other questions, Ms. Mantoo said some 120 000 Afghans had fled to the Kabul city and province. It was alarming that 80% of those fleeing were women, children, and infants. Civilian casualties were spiralling, and Afghanistan was on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Insecurity was also rising, with reports of extorsion of fleeing people by non-State groups. More support for live-saving interventions was needed.

Most displacements were happening inside Afghanistan, with no major cross-border movements. Iran and Pakistan hosted 90% of all Afghan refugees abroad. But this hospitality could not be taken for granted. Any major influx would require the international community to help Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Mr. Phiri added that women and children suffered the most, partly because they could not access aid distribution centers. Humanitarians were trying hard to adapt their approaches so that assistance could reach the persons in need. The best-case scenario would be a holding peace agreement, so that people could access services.

Mr. LeBlanc said the security of UN staff, including international and national staff, was a priority for the UN. It had contingency plans that were reviewed as the situation was evolving. The UN relied on the Afghan government, as the host country responsible for the security of UN staff on its territory. Overall, there were some 720 UN staff there. About 300 UN staff remained on site in Afghanistan, many others had been working remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

James Elder, for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), said many children had been killed in the fighting. There were also reports of minors being recruited by armed groups.

Fadela Chaib, for the World Health Organization (WHO), added that Afghanistan’s humanitarian needs were both enormous and complex. Trauma was a major public health concern that was aggravated by the recent escalation in violence. WHO was supporting trauma care in 130 facilities, as well as blood banks, and training health workers on mass casualty management. WHO was also concerned by the shortage of medical supplies.