UN helping Afghans displaced by Taliban

Despite a prevailing “sense of fear” among vulnerable citizens, UN humanitarian agencies and their partners reiterated a global commitment to the people of Afghanistan on Friday, informing that they are still accessing those in need throughout the country.

At least 26,500 people, which includes Afghans and foreign nationals, have been evacuated from Afghanistan since the Taliban began its final advance on Kabul.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is concerned about the prevailing humanitarian needs within Afghanistan, and urges support to ensure that all those requiring assistance are not forgotten.

The situation on the ground across the country remains extremely fluid. While widespread fighting has decreased since the takeover of the country by the Taliban on Sunday, the full impact of the evolving situation is not yet clear.

Many Afghans are extremely anxious about what the future holds.

The Biden administration may compel US airlines to transport tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees as the US military struggles to manage an influx of people in the wake of a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.

An administration official said commercial jets would transport Afghans from locations where they were taken after being evacuated from the country, including US bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Germany, but not be flying into Afghanistan.

President Joe Biden is scheduled to speak about the ongoing evacuation in Afghanistan as well as the impact of Hurricane Henri at 4 p.m. Sunday, according to the White House.

“UNHCR remains concerned about the risk of human rights violations against civilians in this evolving context, including for women and girls”, said Shabia Mantoo a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency. “As of today, those who may be in danger have no way out. UNHCR is calling on countries neighboring Afghanistan to keep their borders open in light of the evolving crisis in Afghanistan.”

Highlighting video footage taken earlier this week showing crowds outside Kabul airport and men clinging in desperation to departing airplanes on the runway, Mantoo warned that the Afghans who could not get away should not be forgotten.

A UN document warned that the Taliban are going door-to-door searching for people who worked for NATO forces or the previous Afghan government.

The militants have intensified their manhunt for “individuals and collaborators” who worked with the former administration and are threatening family members if unable to find their targets, according to the confidential document produced by the RHIPTO Norwegian Center for Global Analyses, a group that provides intelligence to the UN.

“Particularly at risk are individuals in central positions in military, police and investigative units,” the report said.

Over half a million people have already been displaced by the violence in Afghanistan so far this year. Some 80 per cent of nearly a quarter of a million Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children.

This latest situation is only adding more suffering to an already tragic situation, in which over 5 million Afghans are displaced in the country and across borders.

UNHCR is on the ground to provide lifesaving care and protection to families in need of help.

Fear, uncertainty, and ethical dilemmas on the horizon – aid groups in Afghanistan are struggling to understand a vastly changed landscape following the stunning collapse of the international donor-backed government.

On Monday, the first full day after the Taliban swept into Kabul and cemented its control, international aid agencies were waiting to restart operations in a country already locked in multiple humanitarian crises.

Several larger humanitarian groups say they have a mandate to continue emergency aid. But the scope of what that would look like is uncertain – dependent on fraught negotiations with the Taliban, and clouded by the potential for tighter restrictions and threats to Afghan staff.

Common Taliban positions in the past have included: refusing to allow female aid staff, choosing where and to whom aid goes, and demanding payments or “taxation” for access.

Aid workers say they expect these demands to continue, but an overarching Taliban policy on aid is still unclear.

“There doesn’t appear to be very clear lines from the leadership about what exactly the policies are and should be, and how the new government structures should actually work,” said one aid worker with a humanitarian NGO, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely.

Afghanistan’s upheaval comes as long-standing emergencies simmer – from mass displacement, to a severe drought, and another COVID-19 wave. These needs have all been magnified during the Taliban’s recent military surge: Tens of thousands more people have fled their homes, many displaced are gathered in Kabul, and there are fears for the treatment of women, minorities, and others persecuted under previous Taliban rule.

Addressing questions about humanitarian aid access constraints, the UNHCR official explained that around 200 national and international staff “remain on the ground” in Afghanistan, where they work with 18 local non-government partners employing around 900 staff throughout the country.

“At present, we are able to access all provinces, and are working in some two-thirds of all districts”, Mantoo said. “Together with the wider UN country team, we are committed to staying and delivering aid to the Afghan people for as long as we have access to populations in need and can ensure safety for our staff.”

The UNHCR official added that the agency was not involved in State-led evacuation operations, which although welcome, did not address the plight of many millions of Afghans.

The United States and several other nations are working to protect at-risk Afghan nationals through bilateral evacuation programs, but that is not a substitute for an urgent, and wider international humanitarian response.

“These evacuations are lifesaving, they’re critical, they’re needed,” said Mantoo. “But they are bilateral programs organized with the states so we encourage those, they should continue. But the main message is that a broader international response is needed.”

Since the beginning of this year, UNHCR has provided emergency assistance to 230,000 people in the country, including cash assistance, hygiene support and other relief items.

Needs assessments are also ongoing for some half a million displaced Afghans, 80 per cent of whom are women and children.

With 550,000 people displaced inside Afghanistan this year and millions more prior to the chaos linked to the Taliban takeover, UNHCR issued an urgent appeal for $62.8 million to deal with immediate needs. Overall requirements for the Afghanistan situation are $351 million, with funding levels currently at 43 per cent.

In a statement on Friday, the World Food Program (WFP) said that despite security and logistics challenges, the agency “maintains access to most of the country including areas experiencing active fighting”.

In the first six months of the year, WFP delivered food and nutrition assistance to 5.5 million displaced people.

Besides the intermediate way station in Qatar, the U.S. has started using additional sites to include Germany, and discussions are taking place to open other areas as well, said Army Maj. Gen. William “Hank” Taylor, Joint Staff deputy director for regional operation, noting that planes from the Hamid Karzai International Airport have also landed in the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Once the evacuees are processed at intermediate way stations, they are flown to the U.S. and are taken to Fort Bliss, Texas; Fort Lee, Virginia; or, Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.

In the last 24 hours, six U.S. military C-17 aircraft and 32 charter flights departed Kabul, for a total of about 3,800 passengers, he said.

John F. Kirby, Pentagon press secretary

Also in the past 24 hours, three flights landed at Dulles International Airport, in Virginia, he added. 

“As you can see, this is a very complex and multi step operation,” Taylor said.

The U.S. military has 5,800 troops at the Kabul airport. Their mission is airport operations and security, he said, adding that “the airport remains secure.”

Kirby described the situation outside the airport in Kabul as “very fluid and dynamic,” and that “it changes almost by the hour.”

Kirby said he’s aware of reports during the past week of Afghans and Americans being harassed and in a few cases assaulted, but believes it has not been widespread.

Regular communications with Taliban leaders outside the airport continue throughout the day, Kirby said. Those talks center around coordination between groups in areas where overlapping operations are occurring in order to reduce the risk of accidents while ensuring Americans and Afghans have safe passage to the airport.

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