A Situation Report from IRC's Pakistan and Afghanistan Country Director
What is the extent of the current refugee and displaced crisis in Afghanistan and Pakistan?
In Afghanistan an estimated 1.6 million Afghans have left their homes due to a prolonged drought, civil war and the recent bombing. At least 7 million Afghans are in need of food assistance if they are to survive this winter. Since September 11th, an additional 165,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan. Whichever way one looks at it, this is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today.
How is IRC meeting the crisis?
IRC has initiated emergency contingency plans in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan we are providing food, tents, blankets, clothing, potable water and health care services to 14,000 internally displaced families in and around the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. For those affected by the bombing we are providing food and basic household items to 1,000 families in Herat, Kabul and Nangarhar provinces.
In Pakistan, to the Afghan refugees settled in the New Jallozai and New Shamshattoo camps near Peshawar, we have been providing water and sanitation services, non-food items and emergency education and health education. We are one of UNHCR's implementing partners tasked with camp planning site preparation, provision of water and sanitation and health care services in two of the many camps being established in Pakistan's tribal areas to accommodate the expected new influxes of Afghans seeking refuge in Pakistan.
IRC is one of the very few organizations emphasizing protection issues: as an organization with a multi-faceted mission (assistance, protection and refugee advocacy) IRC is looking at new systems that will better link assistance with protection and advocacy. We ensure in our programs that refugees and displaced people have a right to minimum life-sustaining basic services and that these services are equitably distributed.
How many staff does IRC have working on the projects?
IRC employs over 1,600 staff, the vast majority of whom are Afghans, approximately100 are from Pakistan and a dozen are international staff.
What are the main difficulties facing your team?
Security is our primary concern. Staff in northern Afghanistan recently reported that over 50 families in a displaced camp have armed themselves, leading to serious security issues, including rape. Lawlessness along transportation routes has increased. Armed bands trying to loot our compound in Kabul attacked some of our staff.
In Pakistan there are also security concerns, especially with the camps being established in the tribal areas, places where smuggling, gun-running, and tribal feuds take place with little oversight and control from the central government. Last month one of our main field offices was torched by an angry mob, but thankfully nobody was hurt.
Can you equate the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan to any previous crisis you have witnessed?
It seems that every emergency situation is "unprecedented" - Goma, Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia. All daunting challenges. It is the scope of the current Afghan emergency that is incomprehensible. The number of Afghans affected is staggering. Also, IRC is providing assistance to the innocent victims of bombing, never letting go of the humanitarian principles that guide our response to those affected by conflict and acts of war, including a war on terrorism.
IRC was implementing a number of programs before the bombing began. Are they still operating?
Our regular programs continue. Additional resources to address emergency needs are being sought, but not at the expense of our ongoing health, water and sanitation, female education and rehabilitation programs. Even though we had to evacuate international staff for several weeks and temporarily close our female education program for a brief period due to serious security concerns, we are now back in business and IRC's regular refugee programs are functioning smoothly.
What effect will winter have on IRC's programs?
Although most of our target areas will be accessible through roads during winter, the most negative effects will be in Afghanistan's highlands, where the onset of winter will certainly affect efforts to get supplies into the region. In other areas, we are able to get supplies into relatively remote areas, but security of supplies and personnel is a major issue. Further deterioration in the security environment will obviously negatively affect our ability to supply remote areas.
What are IRC's short and long term goals?
Our business is simple: we facilitate repatriation (help people to return to their homes), and stem further migration (help people to stay home). Events are changing by the hour, challenging us to adjust and follow contingency plans in order to provide the most humanitarian assistance to as many vulnerable people as possible in the shortest time. In the long term, IRC strives to improve the livelihoods of communities so families are healthy, self-reliant and safe. Strategically, our phase out plan is to increasingly phase into our Afghan NGO partners who will then run the programs themselves.
Will those refugees entering Pakistan now and those displaced in Afghanistan ever be able to return to their homes?
We must be committed to a long rehabilitation process and be willing to maintain this commitment for many years to come. If the international community can make this pledge, there is every reason to believe that, if not all, at least the majority of Afghans will return to their ancestral homes.