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It’s been quite a month for those of us following the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. On February 3, the New York Times exposed one of the terrible tragedies of this year’s abnormally harsh winter: the deaths of at least 24 children in Kabul’s IDP settlements. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Afghanistan, Michael Keating, was quoted as saying, “I just don’t think the humanitarian story is sufficiently understood here. You’ve got a lot of people who really are in dire straits.”
Through the UN-led Kabul Informal Settlement (KIS) Task Force, humanitarian organizations have begun distributing extra blankets, tarps, and fuel to Afghan IDPs living in the dozens of informal camps throughout the city.
Then on February 4, the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) released its annual “Protection of Civilians” report. The report’s statistics on civilian casualties are alarming. 2011 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led war began more than 10 years ago. 3,021 civilians were killed, an 8 percent increase over 2010 and a 25 percent increase from 2009.
This uptick is largely attributed to insurgents (i.e., Taliban and other extremist groups) and their increased use of IEDs, which were responsible for almost one in three civilian deaths. Total deaths caused by NATO and Afghan security forces decreased by 4 per cent – likely due to the steps ISAF has taken to minimize civilian harm. Regardless, the overall picture is clear: Afghan civilians are dying in increasing numbers.
In addition to reporting civilian deaths, the UNAMA report draws attention to the impact of U.S.-funded and trained Afghan Local Police (ALP) forces on civilian protection. The UN says it received “mixed reports” about the ALP throughout the year, citing reports of murder, rape, violence, and intimidation by ALP forces in Kunduz, Baghlan, and Sari-Pul Provinces. ALP abuses are also blamed for forced displacement in Uruzgan and Sari-Pul Provinces. But these concerns are not new: my colleague and I raised them last summer in Kabul, Washington, and New York.
What the UNAMA report fails to explore in sufficient detail, however, is the dramatic rise in conflict-induced displacement throughout the country. Sure, the report mentions that more than 185,000 Afghans were displaced from their homes in 2011 –a 45 percent increase compared to 2010. It also explains correctly that the rise was primarily a result of conflict and deteriorating security. But beyond that, scant attention is given to the issue of displacement – neither the levels, nor causes, nor trends.
In total, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reports that there are more than 450,000 conflict-IDPs in Afghanistan, excluding the tens of thousands of IDPs who have fled to urban centres like Kabul, as well as those IDPs in insecure areas of the country where UNHCR does not have access. As we reported last June, the dramatic rise in displacement is largely due to the intensifying military operations of NATO and Afghan security forces (especially their increased use of airstrikes), and growing insecurity caused by insurgents and abusive pro-government militias and ALP forces. Moreover, the trends are shifting: Afghans are no longer fleeing for brief periods and returning home shortly thereafter; many are now unwilling to return because they fear their villages are no longer safe.
Suffice it to say, while civilian casualties are an important measure of the overall protection environment, the Afghan government and foreign forces cannot neglect the growing displacement problem: it simply does not fit the “transition” narrative they are trying to promote.
Just last week, some Kabul-based colleagues reminded us of this: “In the end,” they wrote, “the question we have to ask ourselves is how many more children need to die and how many more Afghans need to be displaced until international actors and the Afghan government are willing to remove their blinders and face up to the responsibility that comes with a displacement crisis.”
In the coming year, we at Refugees International will continue our work with Afghans and humanitarian agencies in-country to ensure that all actors better understand conflict-induced displacement and make serious steps to reduce it.February 24, 2012 | Tagged as: Afghanistan, Asia, Protection & Security