The U.N. refugee agency is calling for international support to help hundreds of thousands of Afghan civilians fleeing the intensified fighting precipitated by the U.S. and NATO troop withdrawal from the country.
The breathtaking speed at which Taliban insurgents have taken control of most of Afghanistan has caught international and domestic observers by surprise. It also has left U.N. and other humanitarian agencies ill-prepared to assist the hundreds of thousands of people displaced and left unprotected by the escalating conflict.
The U.N. refugee agency says it is alarmed by the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. It warns of a record number of civilian casualties this year if there is no significant de-escalation of violence.
UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo calls the situation dire and says the impact of the conflict on women and girls is particularly worrisome. She says women and children account for a staggering 80 percent of the nearly quarter-million Afghans who have fled their homes since the end of May.
"Displaced civilians are talking about extortion by non-state armed groups, the presence of improvised explosive devices on major roads," Mantoo said. "And also, not just rising insecurity, we are also seeing the number of civilian casualties really spiraling alarmingly and an increasing proportion of women and children are among those that are targeted.”
Ongoing fighting is reported in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and Kandahar, the country’s second largest city, has now fallen to the Taliban.
Mantoo says most of those forced to flee remain within the country, as close to their homes as fighting will allow. She says few people, so far, have sought asylum in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. But, given the evolving crisis in Afghanistan, she notes that could change.
Therefore, she says the UNHCR is urging neighboring countries to keep their borders open.
"An inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives…In the context of generalized insecurity in many parts of Afghanistan, it is increasingly clear that Afghans outside of the country may have international protection needs," Mantoo said. "UNHCR calls for all states to ensure that they are able to seek safety, regardless of their current legal status.”
Mantoo says the UNHCR and its partners are providing humanitarian assistance to nearly 400,000 displaced people. Among their most critical needs, she says are food, shelter, hygiene, and sanitation.