Refugees in Afghanistan caught between winter and war | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 10.01.2017

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Refugees in Afghanistan caught between winter and war

As Germany claims Afghanistan is a safe country, deteriorating security is forcing people from their homes into harsh winter conditions. Aid organizations and the government seem unable to provide adequate assistance.

The year's first snowfall has blanketed the Afghan capital Kabul, and while some people can enjoy the winter scenery, for refugees in the city, conditions have only become more miserable. Kabul's tent cities and slums that provide emergency shelter to refugees, provide little defense against cold and moisture. There is also a lack of winter clothing and waterproof footwear, with many children wearing only sandals on otherwise bare feet. All of these factors are creating a high risk of infection.

"There are no hospitals here," Khayr Mohammad, a refugee living with his family in a tent in east Kabul, told DW. They fled from the Taliban in Baghlan province, located north of the capital. "We have to travel long distances to obtain medicine for our children and that's why we leave at night," he said. "But medicine is expensive and we are forced to borrow money to help our children." Mohammad fears that his children will not survive the winter.

Deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan

 In 2016, more than 600,000 people fled conflict within Afghanistan's borders while others have been displaced for years. More than half of them are under 18 years old. According to the UN Refugee Agency, as of December 2016 there were a total of more than 1.5

million internally displaced people (IDPs) in Afghanistan.  A report released Tuesday by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Afghanistan (OCHA), said that the number of registered IDPs has grown by 40,000 since mid-December and is expected to continue rising.

The current refugee crisis is a direct result of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, which is the worst it has been in years. Solving the crisis presents an enormous task for the country. There is fighting in almost every province - especially Kunduz, Uruzgan, Helmand and Nangarhar. Most refugees come from these areas.

A humanitarian catastrophe

According to Danielle Moylan, a spokesperson for OCHA, numerous organizations work with the Afghan government to provide for refugee families that are often vulnerable in winter. "We want to be sure that despite the influx of refugees and internally displaced people, that we can guarantee access to adequate shelter, food, clean water, sanitary facilities, health facilities and protection," Moylan told DW.

But the current level of assistance does not seem to be enough. The aid organization Red Crescent Afghanistan said in a press conference that a humanitarian catastrophe was taking place. "Unfortunately, both international organizations and the Afghan government are unable to meet the demand for aid." The Red Crescent added that although they prepared for the winter and for flooding in spring, the current crisis could not have been averted with their current level of resources.

Fear of returning home

Most of Afghanistan's internal refugees are lacking shelter to keep them warm in winter. Zia Rahman told DW that he and his family fled home from the so-called "Islamic State" (IS). "We received something to eat but we don't have a tent or even a roof over our heads," he said, adding that he did not want to return anytime soon. Even though fighting in his district has subsided, he is afraid that IS will return.

Many families have been refugees for years and have lost perspective for the future. Even after winter is over, this will remain an issue. "We encourage the government, the international community and other partners to deal with this challenge," said Moylan, adding that a future must be made possible for IDPs in Afghanistan. "They need a fair and rapid allocation of work and land."

Afghanistan Aufnahmezentrum in Torcham

Afghan refugees arrive from Pakistan at the Torkham processing center

No chance for Pakistani refugees

For refugees in the eastern province of Nangarhar, the relatively mild temperatures spare them from the cold, but that is only a small consolation. The provincial government is becoming overwhelmed as the number of refugees here has been especially high in the past few months and continues to grow.

The high number of Afghans returning from neighboring Pakistan is the main reason for this problem. OCHA estimates that in 2016, 500,000 Afghans were  pressured to return to Afghanistan by the Pakistani government, which has said it wants all Afghans to leave the country by March 2017. Many of these people were born and raised in Pakistan and now they must move to an unknown country.

After being intimidated by Pakistani police, Nader Shah fled with his family and entered Afghanistan at the Torkham border crossing. Now he is staying in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province. "We don't have a roof over our heads," he told DW. "That's why we are forced to live with friends."

Taher is 32 years old and returned voluntarily to Afghanistan. He told DW the government in Kabul has done nothing to improve the situation for people like him. "Our president, Ashraf Ghani, announced that every Afghan who returned home from Pakistan would receive gifts and land," said Taher, adding that his expectations were not fulfillled. "Nothing of the sort has happened." Taher works every day in a brick factory, earning a daily wage of six to seven euros. To start a new life, he will need much more than that.

Ghulam Haider Faqirzai, head of the provincial refugee office in Nangarhar told DW that the Afghan government was working on a solution. "There is a settlement being planned for the refugees returning from Pakistan," he said. "There should be sufficient shelter to house 30,000 families." The number of those returning, however, is unfortunately much higher. 

A gloomy forecast

The number of IDPs combined with those returning from Pakistan is nearly two million and this should increase as more arrive from Pakistan, Europe and Germany. Both the government and aid organizations will struggle to handle the situation and this has already become clear, as aid for IDPs in Afghanistan is currently sporadic and uncoordinated.

Khayr Mohammad in Kabul can attest to this. "Today we will get a sack of flour from one aid organization and tomorrow another will bring us firewood," he said. "But we aren't animals that you can just throw something at. We are asking for a chance to educate our children. And we need a hospital." As a father, Mohammad cares about his children and the winter is still long.