Afghanistan: Country’s four million internally displaced need urgent support amid pandemic

The Afghan government and the international community must urgently scale up efforts to support the country’s four million internally displaced people (IDPs), who have been left badly exposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, said Amnesty International in a new briefing published today.

The briefing, “We survived the virus, but may not survive the hunger”: The impact of COVID-19 on Afghanistan’s internally displaced, details how the pandemic has made an already dire situation for IDPs even more precarious. Living in overcrowded conditions, with insufficient access to water, sanitation, and health facilities, IDPs have little or no means of protecting themselves from contracting, spreading, and recovering from COVID-19.

The briefing also addresses the pandemic’s disastrous impact on livelihoods, women’s rights, and food insecurity in IDP camps, as well as the current inadequacy of aid efforts targeted at IDPs.

Camps are cramped, unsanitary and lack even the most basic medical facilities
Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia

“Afghanistan’s four million displaced people live in conditions perfectly suited to the rapid transmission of a virus like COVID-19. The camps are cramped, unsanitary and lack even the most basic medical facilities. Despite this deadly combination, IDPS have been provided with precious little support to mitigate their situation,” said Samira Hamidi, Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director for South Asia.  

“With the number of IDPs increasing daily due to ongoing conflict and the danger of a further wave of COVID infections still present, the Afghan government and international community must do more to protect IDPs.”

Amnesty International is calling on the Afghan government and the international community to abide by their obligations to IDPs under international law, and allocate specific funding and resources targeted at IDPs to meet their urgent need to access adequate housing, food, water, sanitation, and health.

Access to adequate housing, water, and medical facilities

Amnesty International spoke to IDPs in settlements in Kabul, Herat and Nangarhar, each accommodating more than 1000 families. Living in huts constructed from mud, poles and plastic sheets, housing as many as ten people in only one or two rooms, IDPs are unable to practise social distancing and quarantining.

Basic services such as access to water and sanitation have not been provided, leaving IDPs unable to maintain the hygiene required to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. IDPs who spoke to Amnesty International said that the lack of water facilities forced them to travel long distances to obtain water.

IDPs, who cannot afford to go to a hospital or cover the costs for treatment, have not been provided with access to adequate medical facilities in the camps. Those who spoke to Amnesty International said that they have also not received any personal protective equipment such as face masks or sanitizers, nor has any information been circulated to raise awareness of COVID-19.

A 45-year-old woman living in a camp in Nangarhar said: “Most families had the signs of coronavirus, but they were not able to do any test to find out whether they were affected or not. At least seven people who were believed to have contracted coronavirus died in the settlement but again we could not verify due to lack of tests and access to health facilities”.

Impact on livelihoods and women’s rights

With COVID-19 regulations restricting women’s right to travel without a male companion, the pandemic has left women dependent on male family members for food and other daily necessities, as well as the ability to access healthcare facilities.  The pandemic has also exposed women to greater risk of domestic violence, with limited access to protection services.

According to the IDPs interviewed by Amnesty International, there has not been any targeted assistance to women or children by government agencies or international humanitarian organizations during the lockdown.

Lockdown measures disproportionately affected the employment prospects of IDPs, who predominantly work for daily wages in informal jobs. As well as a loss of income, these measures have resulted in a steep rise in the price of basic food items. IDPs said that they either had not received any food-related relief or that it had been completely insufficient to help them survive the crisis.

Though unintended, measures aimed at tackling the pandemic have had a disproportionately damaging impact on IDPs
Samira Hamidi

An IDP in Nangarhar said: “We are living with nothing honestly, we don’t have work, we don’t have money and we don’t have anywhere to live. All I want from the Afghan government and the international community is to help us return to our own villages, help us to rebuild our lives, and live in dignity.”

“COVID-19 clearly presented an enormous challenge to the Afghan government. Though unintended, measures aimed at tackling the pandemic have had a disproportionately damaging impact on IDPs - the country’s most vulnerable group. Dedicated resources and greater support from the international community must be forthcoming to mitigate that impact to the furthest extent possible,” said Samira Hamidi.

Background

Escalating conflict in Afghanistan over the past year has resulted in a rise in the numbers being displaced, with thousands of new cases being registered each week. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, around 327,000 people were displaced in 2020, 80% of whom were women and children.

The Afghanistan Humanitarian Response Plan, which envisioned much improved living conditions for Afghans by 2021, remains severely under-funded, with only 23 percent of requirements having been funded as of 24 July 2020. This under-resourcing is mirrored in the National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons, which is in urgent need of the promised USD 396 million funding to respond to the situation of IDPs and migrant workers returning from Pakistan and Iran. 

The Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation (MoRR) has conducted some public health awareness raising campaigns and distributed soap, but Amnesty International found that such campaigns do not appear to have reached IDPs residing in settlements in the provinces.