Ongoing insecurity hampering humanitarian efforts in Afghanistan

Having to operate under tighter security restrictions has curtailed the efforts of United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in delivering vital humanitarian aid to thousands of Afghans in preparation for winter, the world body’s mission in the country said today.

At the end of 2007, humanitarian actors in Afghanistan are operating under much tighter security restrictions – the inevitable consequence of insecurity on the ground – Charlie Higgins of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said at a press briefing in Kabul today.

“These restrictions curtail our access to communities for humanitarian purposes, whether this is the delivery of relief, or efforts to protect civilians from direct harm during conflict,” stated Mr. Higgins, who heads UNAMA’s humanitarian unit.

Mr. Higgins stressed “an unacceptably high risk” to agencies that carry humanitarian deliveries along the main routes in southern and western Afghanistan, as evidenced by a recent attack on a UN World Food Programme (WFP) truck carrying 15 tons of biscuits. The vehicle was looted and then burned, and the driver killed.

Despite the difficulties, efforts to move supplies have been “largely successful,” he added, noting that 90 per cent – about 21,000 of the planned 23,000 tons – of the food needed for 326,000 potential beneficiaries this winter has now been delivered by WFP to its partner NGOs across 17 provinces.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have also pre-positioned non-food items, including tarpaulins, blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, soap, heaters and emergency health kits in the same areas.

Mr. Higgins emphasized that Afghanistan has lost much of the “humanitarian space” it had even two or three years ago, which has severely affected the freedom that aid workers need to evaluate essential needs, to monitor the distribution and use of relief, and have a dialogue with the affected people and relevant authorities.

“We need to regain the space that humanitarian action needs in order for agencies to deliver the fundamental life-saving services to the population,” he stated.

A recent example of this was the three polio vaccination campaigns held in conflict areas such as Helmand province, where the groups fighting the Government agreed to observe “days of tranquillity” and refrain from hindering or attacking the health workers providing the vaccinations, he noted.