U.N. Refugee Chief: Conflict, Climate and COVID-19 in Afghanistan

The chaotic atmosphere in Afghanistan, where the Taliban militia’s seizure of the capital Kabul has spurred frantic stampedes to the airport by thousands of Afghans seeking to escape the country, is stoking fears about the safety of the country’s citizens, particularly its women and girls.

That anxiety is being triggered by the uncertainty of what the coming days and months will bring in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, a Taliban spokesman said women’s rights will be honored under Islamic law. During the Taliban’s previous rule in the 1990s, however, women were forbidden from working and girls were prevented from attending school. Reports of forced slavery of females were common. Today, reports are already coming in about Taliban forces removing women from working at banks.

International attention now turns to the safety of Afghan citizens, particularly those who have worked with U.S. and NATO military forces, and with Western organizations that sought to establish a civil society.

The return of Taliban rule is spurring a new wave of emigration out of Afghanistan. Even before the Taliban takeover, the United Nations estimated there were 2.5 million registered Afghan refugees around the world, the largest group of refugees in Asia and the second-largest group of refugees in the world, surpassed only by displaced Syrians. The London-based humanitarian organization Save the Children estimates 75,000 Afghan children have fled their homes just in the past month to seek safety.

[MORE: Afghanistan, Israel Largest Recipients of U.S. Foreign Aid]

U.S. News & World Report spoke on Tuesday with Caroline Van Buren, the representative in Afghanistan for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees — the U.N.’s refugee agency. Van Buren is a veteran worker of refugee issues, having started working at the UNHCR in 1993, and who began working in Afghanistan in early 2019. Van Buren spoke by telephone from her U.N. offices in the capital of Kabul.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What strikes you about the situation in Afghanistan today compared to other places that you’ve worked?

The situations (around the world) are very different. But when it comes to the displacement issues for here, the added factors, besides the displacement, besides the natural disaster, flood, drought, we also have had to deal with COVID. COVID is still here. So we have three issues: conflict, COVID and climate that we’re dealing with in Afghanistan.

What is the most important issue you are facing in Afghanistan?

Well, the most important issue is the large-scale displacement (of people), and ensuring that the people who are displaced have the necessary assistance, whether in shelter, water, sanitation, health care and food.

Can you describe the numbers of people that you’re helping, and how that has changed in the past week or two?

Over 500,000 people have been displaced since the beginning of the year. The majority of the displacements happened after the announcement in May of the withdrawal of international troops. And then over the last couple of weeks, the numbers increased dramatically. We have, for instance, for Kabul, over 120,000 displaced across the city.

Are there specific groups of people seeking your help?

It’s a broad range. We have families, we have women, children, single males — all of them looking for safety and assistance.

Can you describe the scale of the international relief effort taking place in Afghanistan?

We work with various partners; there are 24 U.N. agencies involved. When it comes to humanitarian organizations, we work with international partners as well as national partners, so that we can reach across the country.

As for when we need to get to people, right now because of the situation, when there’s conflict, we have to hibernate, we have to bunker down, and we have to wait to ensure that it’s safe before we can do assessments. And we do assessments between different agencies, NGOs, all together … before we see the most in need to provide the necessary assistance.

How helpful has the new regime, the Taliban, been since they’ve come into control of the country?

Throughout the country, where we have offices, they have offered safety and security to our staff, including our partners. They are asking us to continue to work, to continue to provide assistance. So, this is just now and we are seeing whether or not this will continue.

Is there an overarching message that you would like to tell about what you’re facing in Afghanistan?

People need, as I said earlier, shelter, food, water, and sanitation. We need to help the people of Afghanistan. We cannot watch what’s happening here and not provide the necessary assistance. And this is why the United Nations is staying as long as we can, as long as it’s safe, so we can assist people in need in Afghanistan.

More from U.S. News

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The 10 Countries That Care the Most About Human Rights, Based on Perception

U.N. Refugee Chief: Conflict, Climate and COVID-19 in Afghanistan originally appeared on usnews.com

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