Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Oxfam


  1.  Oxfam welcomes the opportunity to feed into this all-important inquiry into the current humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Since we gave oral evidence to the Committee on 23 October momentous changes have occurred in Afghanistan and we feel that our written submission should reflect these changes.

  2.  Afghanistan's political and military landscape has dramatically changed over the course of the past couple of weeks and will no doubt continue to do so over the coming weeks and months. More than a week after the fall of Kabul, security has improved in some places. But in others, it has not. The UN World Food Program has been more successful at getting food into the country, but continued instability and violence is preventing food from getting to some of the most desperately needy districts.

  3.  A humanitarian crisis still looms large over much of the country. For example, normally at this time of year Oxfam GB local staff would soon be stopping work in some parts of Afghanistan because of snow, having given people enough food to see them through the winter. This year, these people still have little or no food aid and many are about to be cut off by the winter snows. Oxfam International partner organisations working on the ground in Afghanistan report a desperate race against time to get food in to the worst affected areas.

  4.  There is an urgent need for the international community to address the food needs in the crisis districts, including in the central highlands, and to negotiate secure access along all land routes. For this reason Oxfam are calling on the international community to agree to the immediate deployment of a UN security force. This should ensure the security of food distribution to key districts and help maintain law and order in the transition to a broad-based government. The UN force could take many forms from UN blue helmets to a UN-mandated multinational force. The key is to get substantial numbers there quickly.

  5.  With winter fast approaching there is a need to accelerate the trucking of food to districts in need, particularly areas about to be cut off by snow. In addition the plans to air lift or air drop food must be speeded up, to be swiftly acted on if snow or insecurity still prevent overland access.

  6.  War and drought in Afghanistan have generated the second largest exodus of refugees in the world. Before the current military campaign, there were 3.6 million refugees in neighbouring countries and abroad; over one hundred thousand more have fled towards Pakistan and Iran and UNHCR fears that the latest fighting around Kandahar may lead to a further exodus. The conditions faced by internally displaced people and refugees are far below any acceptable standards. Oxfam is calling on the governments of the region and the international community to take urgent action to ensure that basic needs are met and that people's rights are respected within international humanitarian law.


  7.  The recent events in Afghanistan have changed the humanitarian picture, in some places for the better but in other places for the worse. Like the political situation, the situation on the ground is fluid, changing on a daily, if not hourly basis and our hope is that gains by the Northern Alliance will bring increased security which in turn will enable aid agencies to carry out their work more effectively. But in some areas there is still a lot of fighting, food truckers are fearful about driving into an unknown situation and some aid routes continue to be disrupted. Current reports Oxfam is getting from parts of the West and the North West of the country suggest that increasing insecurity and fear of lawlessness are making it very difficult to get food to people.

  8.  On 20 November, armed men stopped food convoys travelling from Kabul to Bamyan in the central highlands, as they tried to extort "taxes". On 21 November gunmen attacked food convoys near Jalalabad in the East. Violence, intimidation and obstacles to aid will only get worse unless the international community demonstrates now that it can restore law and order and facilitate a transition to stable government representing all Afghans. That demands a much stronger role for the UN in Afghanistan in the crucial next few weeks and months. It urgently requires a UN-authorised security force. But it also requires the UN to lead Afghanistan's immediate administration until the voice of all Afghans can be heard.

  9.  Winter has arrived in parts of the country and snow has already begun to fall. The central districts of Chagcharan and Taywara are among the most vulnerable. In parts of Zabul, people have been relying on crickets and grubs as their main source of food since August. In Jawand there have been reports of people dying because of lack of food and even wild plants which people eat when they are desperate are becoming scarce.

  10.  Despite areas of insecurity there are also signs of hope. In many areas conditions are allowing aid workers to get on with the job. In Yakawlang (Hazarajat) for the first time this year we are now able to distribute food off the back of trucks to 20,000 people.


  11.  The humanitarian situation in camps inside the Afghanistan border is appalling. In some places conditions are deteriorating rapidly, with cases of malnutrition and disease on the rise because essential, life-saving conditions such as access to food, clean water and medicines cannot be provided. Camps in Pakistan are inadequate; new sites do not meet standards of safety nor allow conditions for life with dignity.

  12.  There are rising health concerns at the makeshift camp in Spin Boldak (near the Chaman crossing, but inside Afghanistan and under Taliban control). For example, there have been increasing cases of malnutrition and dysentery among children. According to the UNHCR, the camp's population is about 3,000 people, or some 700 families. At least 100 families are reported to be sleeping in the open without any shelter or aid.

  13.  In Pakistan, up to 100,000 people are thought to have entered the country through Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province since 11 September, even though the border has remained officially closed except for 'exceptionally vulnerable' persons. Even so, it is believed that an average of 2,500 Afghans a day cross the border. There are clearly not enough camps in place to receive, process, and assist populations in need. Killi Faizo staging camp in Pakistan, near the Chaman border, currently holds some 2,400 people and, according to the UN, is over-capacity. The site was filled and further registration closed in just over a week after opening. Longer-term refugee camps have still not been properly established. Conditions in those areas designated as camp sites will almost certainly be extraordinarily harsh and inhospitable. This is the situation even without the further flow of refugees from Kandahar which UNHCR and others now anticipate.

  14.  Neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan and Iran, have been generous in hosting millions of Afghan refugees in recent years, but these countries have now stated that it is against their national interests to open their borders. While their concerns may be valid, it is clearly their responsibility, with sufficient financial and institutional backing from the international community, to ensure that refugees are granted due protection and assistance.

  15.  There are immediate steps that can be taken to diminish the obstacles and fears faced by neighbouring states. Arguments to keep the borders shut could be more easily countered if a proper system of refugee status determination was in place, with refugee camps located at a suitable distance from international borders, and with an assurance of their civilian nature guaranteed by the host countries and the UNHCR. As more flee from Kunduz, Kandahar and other front lines, it is more vital than ever that Afghanistan's neighbours allow refugees to cross their borders, without the threat of involuntary return, and with proper assistance and security in those neighbouring countries. To meet the financial burden of this crisis, donors must provide prompt and adequate funding and institutional support for host governments. These pledges must be quickly fulfilled, since these countries are already among the poorest in the world, and facing the same devastating three-year drought as Afghanistan.

  16.  There is also a new challenge for aid agencies since the fall of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan. Many IDPs who fled their homes because of drought and fighting have started to return. As part of new £300,000 programme to feed people over winter Oxfam will be providing 10,000 of the internally displaced people with fuel, warm clothing, blankets and food to help them through the winter.


22 November 2001

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