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Afghan Aid in Jeopardy

Western relief workers may struggle to assist civilians uprooted by fighting in Afghanistan.
By IWPR

International aid agencies in the Afghanistan region are facing unprecedented difficulties in responding to the expected humanitarian crisis, relief workers say.


Border closures, poor access to Afghanistan and to remote refugee camps in Pakistan, coupled with worries about staff security, are creating special difficulties for the many relief agencies based here - some of whom have been in the region for almost twenty years.


Many agencies have pulled out their international staff from Afghanistan and had their communications with field offices cut off following a Taleban edict. Most international staff in Pakistan are unable to leave their homes because of security risks, and are worried about instability in border regions where new refugee camps may be built in coming weeks.


Officials are deeply worried about the situation inside Afghanistan. Despite US assurances that military strikes will be accompanied by the delivery of aid, many relief agencies fear conditions there will soon worsen significantly.


"We have serious concerns about the current humanitarian situation within Afghanistan," said Sigurd Hanson, programme director of the International Rescue Committee, a major aid agency in the region. "We are unable to move supplies into the areas that need it."


Hanson also pointed out that US food ration drops were inadequate to meet current needs, "It's like a drop in the ocean - and an extremely expensive one. It is next to meaningless. There are also other needs besides food - for instance, shelter and health care."


Some humanitarian officials say the airdrops are little more than a public relations ploy - or "propaganda", as one aid official put it. "It's very difficult to supply humanitarian aid during military operations. That's just the truth of the matter, " he said. "You can't have it both ways: war and aid.


"You have to have safe corridors in which no military operations take place. But you can't sit back and pretend that the war continues and the aid gets through. It just isn't possible."


Agencies also have serious concerns about access to those fleeing to Pakistan. President Musharraf has indicated that new refugees will not be allowed to pass into the country, although newly-arrived Afghans found here will be allowed to stay.


Current plans for new refugees envisage closed, guarded camps in the immediate vicinity of the Afghan border, lying in so-called "tribal areas" - independent municipalities run by local police forces, known for their lawlessness. Many agency heads worry that the security for both refugees and aid workers will be endangered if camps are placed in such unstable areas.


Officials from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, have said privately that they are confident the Pakistani government will admit new refugees if numbers at major border crossings swell. If they don't, aid workers will be forced to negotiate an arrangement to deliver aid into areas just within the Afghanistan border - a situation rife with security and logistical difficulties.


In the long-term, agencies are confident that they will be able to reach refugees and return to Afghanistan to deliver aid to vulnerable Afghan families. The short-term, however, could prove deadly. One aid worker pointed out this week as a rare evening chill fell on Peshawar, "winter is only weeks away".


John Sifton is a human rights attorney and aid worker who has worked inside Afghanistan for most of the last year.


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