NEW DELHI—Already stressed by continuous drought and conflict, 24 million Afghanis are in need of humanitarian assistance following the Taliban’s takeover of the country, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
The 24 million in need, up from 18 million before the Aug. 15 takeover, account for more than half of the nation’s total population of 40 million.
In 2021, alone 700,000 people were displaced by conflict in Afghanistan, 80 percent of whom are women and children, said Babar Baloch, global spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“Even before events of 15th of August, we know that in the last two years, Afghanistan has heavily relied on international help and support. So since the takeover of the Taliban—since the new de facto rulers have come into power—that support has diminished. In many sectors, it has stopped. So now, we see that people who were doing routine jobs may be employed right now, but there is no money to pay their salaries,” Baloch said.
“And I’m talking about essential services. I’m talking about doctors, talking about health support staff, health technicians, talking about teachers, others. So that income has just disappeared; if you had money in the bank before the 15th of August, that money or that access to that money may have disappeared as well.”
The Afghan economy is nearing collapse and the country’s banking system and social services are barely operating, he said.
While in Kabul, Baloch visited the UNHCR humanitarian distribution center where people would come to collect their assistance.
“So if we have, for instance, a distribution for 500 families, there will be an additional 500 families or additional people who will come there asking us for help as well. And don’t forget that these are not displaced people. They’re staying in their own houses, they are in the locality where the displaced people are. So that need in terms of support is now growing because people have lost incomes,” he said.
‘Don’t Have Enough to Eat’
Baloch said that farmers in Afghanistan have faced two droughts in the past five years and businesses are also affected—the conflicts of the past 40 years have aggravated every existing problem. On top of all this, the COVID pandemic “compounded” every existing misery.
“But now, because you have a change in those who are ruling Afghanistan and international engagement is not there, our worry is if there’s no fix to Afghanistan’s humanitarian crisis, people’s suffering will increase,” he said.
Currently, he says, there is a crisis of hunger and starvation in Afghanistan.
“The estimates are talking about the 24 million people that I mentioned to you being in need of humanitarian help right now, the majority of them do not have enough to eat and that affects everyone alike,” said Baloch, adding that out of these 24 million, 9 million are just one step from starvation. “You have lactating mothers, you have babies who have ended up in hospital needing therapeutic feeding, without which they will just not survive.”
Among the Afghans needing urgent assistance are “many, many” children, he said, and if help doesn’t arrive soon, “they’ll lose their lives.”
Baloch said to understand the nation’s situation today, one has to look at it from a “different and abnormal lens,” because nothing has been normal in Afghanistan over the past 40 years and people are losing hope.
“It has seen rounds of conflict. It has seen human suffering. It has seen international troops that have come in and have left. But the impact has been so devastating for our people,” he said.
“It is going to take them a long time, if there is some hope that their lives are going to get normal soon, which sadly, I mean if you’re inside of Afghanistan you go and you talk to people, they’re kind of losing hope, in terms of what in store next for them.”
Baloch said the complexities are compounding in Afghanistan because hunger is linked to every other factor of existence, and hunger loops into more cycles of crisis.
“Yes, hunger affects people. Yes, hunger is linked to drought, to climate. But hunger is also linked to conflict,” he said.
When the Taliban fell in 2001, almost 6 million Afghans who were living outside their country returned home to restart their lives and rebuild their country, he said.
“And many of them were former refugees, that we at UNHCR helped them to return back home,” he said, adding that Afghanistan’s future is at stake.
“The projections that international aid agencies have if no support is given immediately to Afghanistan’s children [indicate that] 1 million children are at risk of dying,” he said, adding that these children need therapeutic feeding.
History has been very cruel to Afghanistan and over the past 40 years, things have worsened, Baloch said.
With so much displacement that happened and still happening, Baloch said people don’t have proper shelter; that’s dangerous because the winters in Afghanistan are harsh.
“There are so many aspects of support that Afghans need today,” he said, adding that when he visited relief distribution centers in Kabul or deep in the Pakistan countryside, he heard many sad stories.
Most of the households in the places he visited are led by women because most of the men aren’t there or have been killed, he said. Many families are torn apart and elderly grandparents are left to care for orphaned children.
“Among that queue, we saw a one really elderly woman who just dropped in front of our eyes; she lost consciousness. So my colleagues rushed to help and support her, and they gave her water,” Baloch said.
“Someone asked her what happened to her. And she said she had not eaten for days. So this is the story in terms of when we talk about people going hungry. This is one of the real examples that you can witness, in many places,” he said.
He also noted that he heard stories from people who were working but not being paid. He gave the example of a school he visited in Herat, close to the Iranian border.
“We met a teacher and she was teaching some of the girls in the class. Her focus was more in terms of telling us what her students needed. They don’t have enough stationery, copies, pens, and everything else,” he said. “And she was telling us that this is going to discourage them from not coming.”
The teacher also explained to the UNHCR team how important it is for girls at higher levels of education to be allowed to return to school.
“What she wasn’t mentioning was at that stage was she hasn’t been paid for four months and she was still standing there trying to do her job,” said Baloch.