Select Committee on International Development Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 68 - 79)




  68. Thank you very much for coming in this morning to help us on the inquiry we are doing into the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and the surrounding region. Mr Sakandar Ali, I understand you have only just recently returned from Pakistan, literally today or yesterday?
  (Mr Ali) The day before yesterday.

  69. Perhaps you would like to start by telling the Committee a bit about your up-to-date impressions and also perhaps you could help the Committee by telling us about Islamic Relief, a bit about your organisation. I think, in fairness, we probably all know Christian Aid and Save the Children Fund really quite well but it would be helpful to the Committee to have a little greater understanding of your work, where you are involved and your up-to-date impressions of Pakistan, then I know all of my colleagues have got lots of questions to put to all of you. We will not have opening statements but I am quite sure that during the course of the questioning there will be plenty of opportunity for you to make comments. If at the end you feel there are any points that have not been raised or teased out I will make sure that there is an opportunity for you to make final comments. The other boring thing is can everybody please speak up a bit. These microphones are very deceptive because everyone thinks they are microphones but they are there for the benefit of the television cameras and quite a lot of us up here are fairly deaf.
  (Mr Ali) Thank you and good morning, everybody. May I request that I answer the second question first, the introduction to Islamic Relief, and then go into the questions. Islamic Relief is a British organisation that was established in 1984 initially having a Muslim population as its constituents. Over the years the organisation as well as its work has developed and moved into a number of countries. Currently there are approximately 20 operations worldwide. By "operations" I mean where Islamic Relief is directly working with the beneficiaries and assisting people. We also have fund raising offices in most of the European countries now and there is a fund raising office in Los Angeles as well. Thanks to the British Government recently we have begun to get significant institutional funding as well. For example, our programme in Pakistan, in Mazar, Kashmir near the line of control, which is basically health and sustainable livelihood is funded mostly by the British Government. Also in view of the current perceived influx of the refugees into Pakistan, the generous contribution of £1 million by the British Government again is appreciated. In the Pakistan/Afghanistan context Islamic Relief has been established in Pakistan, registered as a charity since 1992, and has been working in response mainly to emergencies inside Afghanistan, the odd earthquake, the odd flood, and then the response to the drought. Early this year the management assessed the crisis mainly relating to the drought at the time and decided that there should be a mission in its own right launched in Afghanistan with the office of the Country Director based inside the country. In April of this year Islamic Relief registered itself in Kabul and launched a separate mission in its own right reporting to its headquarters and I myself was appointed as the Country Director based in Kabul. Within this time we have established a presence in the central area through our Kabul office and a presence in the southern area through our Kandahar office and, along with WFP, we are currently making assessments in the north. It was in our strategy to open up an office in Mazar on 29 September which under the circumstances has been put on hold. I myself have been in Afghanistan all this time. I had to evacuate back to Islamabad some three weeks ago. There is an approach where we are separating the work and the Afghanistan team will take care of the IDP assistance inside Afghanistan and the Islamic Relief Pakistan office that was already running will take care of the refugee influx, mainly in the Balochistan Province with the British Government money and some of Islamic Relief's own funding in the Peshawar area. In terms of the recent impressions, I can tell you that on around 13 September, and what perhaps led to my evacuation from Afghanistan, there was an attack on Kabul City from the Northern Alliance. Initially we thought it was perhaps an earthquake or something but it was late at night and during the day it was confirmed that there was an attack by the Northern Alliance. It happened again the following night and then we received a call from the British Foreign Office stating that Britons should pull out of Afghanistan. We have our own security analysis and measures that we have put in place. Taking that advice we actually waited a couple more days to assess the situation and we were then told by the authorities that they were no longer able at that time to assure the security of expatriates and it was perhaps better, because of the uncertain situation, that we left. So about three weeks ago I left Afghanistan and went into Pakistan. Since then we have been doing two things. One, there was a lack of clarity and lack of quality information coming out of Afghanistan, particularly pertaining to the displacement of people inside the country and also to the refugee figures, who was coming across, when they had come, which particular entry points did they use. What we started to do was from our office, which is still operational, inside Afghanistan with our local staff, we put together a border monitoring team. So from within Afghanistan a border monitoring team would assess the outflow of people and then from within Pakistan a border monitoring team would assess the inflow of refugees to try to get quality information because it was important for us to plan any assistance that we wanted to give. Based on that we advised DFID that perhaps the bulk of the refugees would be in Balochistan and therefore the thrust of Islamic Relief's work for refugees is now in Balochistan, and to look at the IDP displacement, which provinces are they going to, are they coming towards the border, what is the profile of the people? This helps us to target assistance better. I can conclude by saying that the impression that I have currently is that there is massive displacement inside Afghanistan at the moment. The refugee outflow is not at the level that was expected. Particularly during the first few weeks it was anticipated that a million and a half or more people would come. I must make the distinction that this million and a half or more people was predicted into Pakistan and neighbouring countries, not just Pakistan itself. That outflow has not been in the numbers that we expected but internal displacement, particularly now on the other side of the border, is quite significant, is visible. Those are the issues we are trying to address at the moment.

Mr Battle

  70. Could you give me an idea of how many staff you have got? You say you have got a team still in Afghanistan focussing on food relief or direct aid relief and then a team in Pakistan working in refugees. Is the team in Afghanistan now working with internal refugee camps as well? What is the size and scale of your operation?
  (Mr Ali) Perhaps I can go office by office because each office covers a different part of the country. In the Kabul office the structure is such that we have a senior programme officer, "programme" meaning the programme that we will launch to assist people. Within that team there are a couple of engineers, some field officers. The total strength of that staff is approximately 23 people in Kabul. This basically allows us to do direct implementation. The fact that we have a large number of field officers where we need local partners means that they can ensure constant monitoring of those partners also. Kandahar tends to be bigger because we have a bigger programme in Kandahar, particularly in Helmand Province. The management of the programme is done from the Kandahar office. We have an office in Kajaki. Musa Qala and Kajaki are towards Iran in the Helmand Province where we have launched our large ADRP, or Afghanistan Drought Relief Programme. If you include the social mobilisers from the communities, the engineers, the field officers, it goes up to about 60-odd people in that particular province. In Pakistan there is an ongoing programme because the office has been established since 1992. So there are ongoing programmes that staff are committed to and we do not want the emergency to affect that. There is now additional recruitment primarily to cater for the emergency. In the emergency I can confirm that for Balochistan we are the official registration NGO for UNHCR and the requirement for that was 75 people. This means we have got the reception centres that UNHCR has put forward, so if there are people crossing the border seeking refugee status or assistance through these reception centres we can register them. Then we have a team of programme officers, logisticians, engineers, to do camp layout and camp establishment and co-ordinate activities within the camps. All in all, if we take out the registration aspect, we have recruited about 35 people for this emergency. The existing staff for the ongoing programmes number about the same.

  71. You work with local partners in Afghanistan but do you also work with other NGOs, other aid agencies, Christian aid agencies as well? What is the co-ordination like? Do you co-ordinate them or are you the only presence really inside Afghanistan?
  (Mr Ali) To clarify: Islamic Relief has a policy, where possible, not to work through partners but we prefer direct implementation for accountability and proper monitoring and it is actually at times more cost-effective as well to do direct implementation. Local partners we use where it is difficult to have a presence or because it is very expensive to have a establishment there, we will take on a local partner because it is more cost-effective although we will ensure constant monitoring of that. For the moment in the current crisis we have taken on two local partners, one GRSP, Ghazni Rural Support Programme, which will cater for the Central Highlands, the Ghazni and Uruzgan Provinces, and there is another partner, Etabar, which we will activate in Parwan, which is the northern province above Kabul, for food aid. We will monitor both of those. In terms of co-ordination, there are co-ordination bodies that existed before the crisis and exist during the crisis now in Pakistan. We try not to duplicate that, we would rather plug into a bigger co-ordination body. The UN has divided Afghanistan into North, Central, South, East and West and every division has its regional co-ordinator from the UN Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Affairs. We form the body of the UN and local as well as international NGOs to do the overall co-ordination under the chairmanship of the UN. We are part of that body. In Pakistan when initially after 11 September there was this feeling of imminent reaction towards Afghanistan we assessed that perhaps it was time to not be taken by surprise by the emergency, but as I mentioned to my office "I think we will need to start to have a core capacity and take that risk rather than not take that risk". What we did was we called for a co-ordination meeting because at that time there was not one taking place. DFID was one of the participants, along with ECHO, along with most of the British and some American NGOs. What we did was basically bring to the attention of the NGOs that perhaps it was time to look at a possible crisis unfolding and try to have some form of co-ordination mechanism. Thereafter, UNHCR and UN OCHA, the UN Office of the Co-ordinator for Humanitarian Affairs, came up with very distinct rules, that UNHCR would take the lead role for co-ordination of refugees and UN OCHA would take the lead role for co-ordination of whatever happens inside Afghanistan. We all plugged into these co-ordinating bodies, and we continue to do so. Islamic Relief is part of the emergency task force which UN OCHA has made and the basic objective of this task force is to look at the emergency response currently, during the emergency and post emergency. Perhaps some of you have viewed the Donor Alert document. It was part of the emergency task force's job to put that document together. We commented on it and we drafted it, so it was more of a consolidated approach in that document.

  Mr Robathan: What I would like particularly to look at is the camps that are being set up and the camps that have existed for some time and the regime that is instituted in them be it under the UNHCR or other NGOs working in the camps. There is a grave concern in my mind that these camps can become what happened in the Congo in 1984, an extension of a particular regime, in Congo it was the Interahamwee and here it might be the Taliban. Indeed, there is some talk of the camps acting as a fertile recruiting ground, possibly a conscription area, for the Taliban and, furthermore, as a breeding ground for Islamic extremists because there is not very much education provided for children or, indeed, for women and the position of women in the camps is as dire as it might be in a village in Afghanistan. Could you comment on that?


  72. Can we do a tour de table starting with Christian Aid and then going down?
  (Ms Kelly) Christian Aid are based primarily in the west of Afghanistan and as such in this most recent emergency have not chosen to focus very strongly on the camps in Pakistan but have really tried very hard to provide the assistance inside the west to prevent the IDPs becoming refugees, if you want. Specifically to those questions I think we would not have inside information. We do some support work with our local partners who are providing some non-food relief particularly but we do not have a direct presence ourselves.
  (Mr Ali) Are you referring to the IDP camps which will be inside Afghanistan?

Mr Robathan

  73. I am referring to both sets of camps if supported by international humanitarian assistance.
  (Mr Ali) Let us first look at the potential refugee camps. The Government of Pakistan is a key player in any establishment of any camp or any refugee crossing the border. The first border or the first call is with the government. Thereafter it is the UNHCR that will take responsibility for the establishment of any camps. The NGOs are basically after that. So the policy issues, the locations, the procedures, all that is dealt with between the UN bodies and the Government of Pakistan. I can tell you for the moment that the borders are still closed and since we are an agency that is registering refugees on behalf of UNHCR there has not been that many registrations. The camps per se, although they are planned and some sites have been allocated and agreed by the Government of Pakistan, have not yet been erected. One reason put forward for that was that the Government of Pakistan is not ready to open its borders. Although it is doing a wonderful job catering to the refugees that exist as part of the old caseload, it is a little reluctant to have millions more come in. The government is considering this very carefully and it will not necessarily be pressured into opening borders until it is ready.

  74. But are you not working in the camps that already exist for two million refugees that have been there for perhaps a decade?
  (Mr Ali) It has been the organisation's policy that in Pakistan we would not work with refugees until recently. The reason for that was out of any funding that we had for Afghanistan we felt the need was much bigger inside the country. The refugees have a host government, they have an infrastructure and they have access via the international community and aid workers to them. Often inside Afghanistan, particularly in the remote areas we work in, it was not always easy, so whatever funding we had the priority was always inside Afghanistan. That is referring to the old caseload. In the new crisis Islamic Relief is looking to work with refugees. It has received funding and it is in preparation but we are waiting for that refugee influx to take place before any work can start. In response to your question, we have not been working with the old caseload of refugees so I am not in a position to answer.

  75. We visited a camp, at least two of us did, outside Rawalpindi in 1999 and I have to say that I was struck at the time by the lack of facilities, lack of medical attention, the position of women in the camp and the lack of education as well. I would not blame necessarily UNHCR but it was in a pretty dire state. I think it is very important from our point of view that we do not create further camps in dire states and we improve those that do exist. Would you be in a position to provide education in camps if you were helping in camps, with UNHCR of course?
  (Mr Ali) I think, firstly, it is difficult to try to link the existing camps with the establishment of new ones because there is a very clear-cut signal from the Government of Pakistan itself that it does not want the two caseloads, the new and the old, mixing together. If you look at the potential sites that have been proposed, they are mostly along the Pashtun belt ranging from Peshawar down to Balochistan. There is a very difficult terrain and a long distance between them. The camps that exist like Jalozzi and Shamsharu, they are in Peshawar, they are near the city. The new camps, if and when they get established, would actually be along the Pashtun belt to simply try to separate them. In our project that we put forward to DFID and the donors, the assistance that we have the expertise for and the expertise that we know we can deliver is shelter, is food and non-food, blankets, water, sanitation and health. Education is not something that we have put forward and it is not something that we have considered so far.
  (Mr Walker) Speaking on behalf of Save the Children, we are also working closely with UNHCR, the Government of Pakistan and agencies in helping to prepare various locations for the potential influx of refugees in North West Frontier Province primarily, also in Balochistan. I certainly take the point about the issue of adequacy of conditions in these camps and certainly as a humanitarian agency it is our major concern to ensure that we have the basic conditions for health care, for shelter, for education, and certainly from our point of view safe spaces and adequate attention paid to child protection in those camps. We are very, very realistic and aware of the constraints there. I think one of the things that is worth highlighting, and very much a point that the Government of Pakistan has been making, is that one of the reasons why they have been reluctant to open their borders very clearly to people is because there is a lack of clear support on the table from the international community. I would certainly support that there needs to be clear pledges and support up front in order to support the Government of Pakistan in meeting its obligations under international law.

Ann Clwyd

  76. As one who visited the camps in the North West Frontier two years ago I support what my colleague has said. There are lots of questions I would like to ask you, but I would like to get back to immediate things and the situation with the refugees. What is your perception, having been there very recently, of where the refugees from the cities who are perhaps fleeing the bombing in some terror are going? What do you think the situation is in the areas to which they are going? Secondly, some of the most awful scenes I have seen in my life in situations of conflict have been when refugees are fleeing towards borders which are shut to them. Pakistan, as I understand it, has opened and shut and opened and shut, so it is a confusing situation there where on some occasions they are open and on other occasions they are shut. It seems from the accounts of journalists that if you have money you can cross the border. I wondered if you could tell me about the situation for the refugees on the border with Pakistan, on the border with Iran, on the border with the Stans, from the information that you have at the moment?
  (Mr Ali) I will try. Firstly, the internal displacement pattern inside Afghanistan is complex in that initially people were leaving the provinces as a result of drought and going and settling around the outskirts of cities, be it Kandahar, Kabul or whatever. The initial first displacement was the result of the drought. Now as a result of fear, for whatever reasons, be it air strikes, be it the potential of war, there has been a second displacement, those moving away from the cities either towards the border or the provinces. Where are they going? They are going towards the border or the provinces. The flow to the provinces is much more than towards the border. We believe there are a number of reasons for this. One, it is a treacherous journey to get to the border. There are those that do not have the money for transport, and the private transport companies are now charging extraordinary amounts of money to transport people to the border, so where you have a family of seven people it is often difficult to afford transport to the border. Plus, people do still have radios and they know that the borders are still closed. They are not necessarily willing to make that journey to the border and pay so much only to find out the borders are closed. The preferred option is to go the provinces in the first instance where you have friends or family so you are hosted by people. In the second instance, there are now IDPs, flocks of people, in makeshift shelters inside the country. This ranges from Herat in the west all the way to the east. IOM recently approached Islamic Relief and requested that they need 8,500 tents for the new internally displaced people in the Herat region and asked us what we could contribute. We know that there is internal displacement. If I may explain there is a distinct difference between Torkham border and Chaman border which also demonstrates the flow towards Chaman as opposed to Torkham. Torkham has been the official tightly closed border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and it is also the main freight route between Peshawar and Kabul. That border has been very difficult for people to cross because it is not a relaxed border. Chaman however from our own experience, because we have driven from Quetta through Chaman, is a very relaxed border. There are sentries watching but there is not this rigorous checking that happens in Torkham. A lot of the people who crossed initially at Torkham were either dual nationals, they had Pakistani ID cards or they had homes on the other side, that was the first wave of people who came in. The second wave were those who perhaps had friends and relatives who could host them or had some money so they could rent a flat or something. Now those who are left behind or those who are crossing now are the ones who are seeking refugee assistance and that is why in our registration two weeks ago we had 15 families and now there are 250 families and it is increasing every day. People are now more genuinely coming across as refugees. What are the problems inside with displaced people and where do they go? In the provinces our concern is that there is very little shelter, people are in makeshift shelters, and those who are being hosted by families, that hospitality may soon run out because they were not expecting lots of people to host. Yes, culturally it is fine but coping mechanisms of local communities will begin to break down. That is an issue that we have to note and we have to respond to it. Those who are camping or sitting on the other side of the border I discussed recently before coming to Britain with DFID and my opinion is we should not encourage displacement on the other side of the border, so assistance like shelter is not a preferred option at this stage because people also have the right to become refugees and if you have semi-permanent structures on the other side of the border it is a whole complicated issue. When it comes to the basic assistance of food, perhaps winter clothing and water, that we cannot ignore because people do need that.
  (Dr Mukarji) I would just like to support what Sakandar has said. The priority for the agencies and I think the situation in Afghanistan is to do something about the internally displaced people because that is where the largest numbers are. They have not really become refugees now and for most of us we would not like them to become refugees because our experience of the last time they came out was they became permanent and a problem inside Pakistan. The numbers we have from partners and from networks and from sister agencies is there are about half a million people already internally displaced and only 65,000 or a few more have become refugees across the border. The situation inside Afghanistan, beside the fact they are going back into the provinces and becoming a burden on their families and the cultural and community coping mechanisms, is that these people are in a situation where there was already a three year drought and a 20 year civil war. The situation well before 11 September was we began to know and see that we were coming into a situation of a possible famine and a possible situation where families and people in huge numbers, possibly estimated at five million, were going to be needing food and other supplies and the international community was trying to find resources to get that food and other supplies into Afghanistan to help with both delivery and distribution. The data we have now from the World Food Programme and from our own staff and in discussions is that of the daily requirement of food that is necessary to feed people inside Afghanistan today only 25 per cent or less is getting in for the various reasons that we can go into.

  77. Twenty-five per cent.
  (Dr Mukarji) Our figures are actually 19 per cent for October. It is certainly less than 25 per cent. The reality is not only that the food getting in is much less than is required but the actual distribution of food is only 15 per cent. The reality of the humanitarian crisis inside Afghanistan, which is where we would like to help people to stay in their communities, to provide the seeds and the resources to cope with the winter and prepare for next year's harvest, is that the crisis is inside Afghanistan, the crisis is not being managed and unless we have a major programme of trying to find a humanitarian response that is independent, that is adequate and that is urgent, we are going to see a very serious crisis, not only of displaced people but the displaced people today are going to suffer from disease, starvation and a variety of other problems.


  78. I am going to ask Mr Walker if he wants to add anything, and then Mr Cheema.
  (Mr Walker) I would endorse everything that Christian Aid is saying along that line. What I would add is that of course it is not just food, we need to be talking as well about a variety of other types of assistance which importantly include shelter, clothing, other household equipment, health care, etc. If we look at the vulnerability of communities and particularly their children we will see the cumulative effects of decreasing nutritional status and all the additional problems around decreasing health care which we believe will really lead to significant mortality over the coming months.
  (Mr Cheema) I agree with everything that has been said by the panel but the other thing that needs to be added here is the capacity of Pakistan, and specifically if we are talking about the Balochistan area where Islamic Relief has been working for the last two years, the capacity of the host population to absorb such refugee flows. The main province that borders Afghanistan is called Javi, which is a province we have worked in extensively, and that itself is suffering from its own drought over the last three years which the WFP did their own assessment of. That also needs to be taken into account and may well be a major factor in the Government of Pakistan being reluctant to let refugee flows in.

Ann Clwyd

  79. I wanted you to address the question of what is happening on the borders with Iran and Uzbekistan, etc. Could you tell us the position there? Lastly, if the military action continues, as it looks as though it is going to do, what then is your prediction on the humanitarian situation?
  (Ms Kelly) From our information, and we have now at long last been able to get a team into Iran about a week ago, there are not significant movements into Iran so far. There may be some people coming over the borders. It looks like there is the possibility of some supplies going in westward and covering the west. The people in the west, it should be understood, do not have the possibility to go to Pakistan, their only option would be to leave but, as I say, this has not yet transpired. There are, as you probably know, some camps that have now been established inside Afghanistan territory both in Northern Alliance and in Taliban controlled territory. We hope to visit those fairly shortly to find out who is there. There are some disturbing reports that some of these people may not actually be IDPs or refugees but people who have voluntarily or involuntarily been repatriated from Iran. There are a lot of complexities on that border that need to be sorted out but at the moment it is very early days for us to be able to make any real judgment or assessment.
  (Dr Mukarji) Could I answer the second part of the question. I think you said if the military action continues what do you think might happen? We and other agencies, including Islamic Relief, have been asking for a pause in the bombing and we had hoped that if the pause came through—today we were delighted with the Guardian poll that showed 54 per cent of people were supportive of a pause in the bombing—our only information is that we have got about two weeks as a window of opportunity to get in adequate supplies at least for the districts that are in a winter situation where we will not be able to get in supplies. As I have already told you, we are not getting in adequate supplies of food and other things that are required like medicine, blankets, and health care facilities, but we are also not able to distribute it. If the data is coming out and we have no way to verify it, we are talking of a potential humanitarian crisis where large numbers of people are going to suffer because of the famine, because of the drought, because of the lack of food and because of the lack of other supplies. So our hope is—and we urge the British Government, we are urging the international community, in fact we are urging all parties in the country (Afghanistan)—to try to find a mechanism by which we can use the UN and the international community to find safe spaces and humanitarian spaces to get in the supplies required, to find the mechanisms to be able to stock before winter and to be able to distribute that into the communities by the NGOs and others before winter and after winter settles in we can continue with the other places where we will still have access. Because of the military operations from our own information on the ground, there are truck drivers and staff who are scared to go in, who have fears of taking in trucks. We have stories of problems where people have moved away and we cannot get the supplies in so we are just extremely worried about what might happen inside Afghanistan in the next month or so.

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