Access to food aid and other life-saving services in Afghanistan is close to running out, the United Nations warned on Tuesday, amid mounting concern that the country is facing a “looming humanitarian catastrophe”.
The grim assessment from the UN’s Office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs [OCHA] came amid an appeal for an extra $200m (£145m) in emergency funding in Afghanistan after the Taliban’s takeover sparked a host of new issues.
The UN says 18 million people are facing a humanitarian disaster, and another 18 million could quickly join them.
The warning came as the UN’s children’s agency, Unicef, disclosed that it had registered hundreds of children who had been separated from their families in the chaos of the evacuation from Kabul’s Hamid Karzai international airport.
The children included unaccompanied minors who ended up on flights to countries including Germany and Qatar.
With several key donors including Germany, the World Bank and EU suspending their aid programmes follow the Taliban’s lightning military conquest of the country last month, spiralling food prices, the impact or recent devastating drought and uncertainty over how the hardline Islamist movement will provide services to an impoverished and largely rural population, the question of aid has become ever more urgent.
“Basic services in Afghanistan are collapsing and food and other life-saving aid is about to run out,” OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said adding that $606m in aid was now needed for Afghanistan until the end of the year.
The issue of Afghan aid will be discussed next Monday at a ministerial meeting in Geneva hosted by the UN chief, António Guterres.
The country, now under the control of the Taliban after 20 years of war, is facing a “looming humanitarian catastrophe”, Guterres’s spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric warned last week when announcing the conference.
With almost half of Afghanistan’s population of 40 million people requiring humanitarian support, EU foreign ministers on Friday agreed to a joint approach to working with the Taliban demanding that the government permits access to humanitarian aid.
With Afghanistan’s former western-backed government heavily reliant on international aid, concern has been growing over how services including the country’s fragile healthcare system can be sustained in the coming weeks and months.
Last week Doctors with Borders raised its own alarm. “One of the great risks for the health system here is basically to collapse because of lack of support,” said Filipe Ribeiro, Afghanistan representative for the organisation. “The overall health system in Afghanistan is understaffed, under-equipped and underfunded, for years. And the great risk is that this underfunding will continue over time.”
The continuing sense of chaos around the situation in Afghanistan was underlined by the disclosure on Tuesday by the Unicef director, Henrietta Fore, of the scale of the problem of children separated from their families during the US-led airlift from Kabul.
“Since 14 August, hundreds of children have been separated from their families amidst chaotic conditions, including large-scale evacuations, in and around the Hamid Karzai international airport in Kabul. Some of these children were evacuated on flights to Germany, Qatar and other countries.
“Unicef and our partners have registered approximately 300 unaccompanied and separated children evacuated from Afghanistan. We expect this number to rise through ongoing identification efforts.
“I can only imagine how frightened these children must have been to suddenly find themselves without their families as the crisis at the airport unfolded or as they were whisked away on an evacuation flight.
The mounting worries over how to secure continuing aid to Afghanistan came as the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Tuesday that the Taliban had reiterated a pledge to allow Afghans to freely depart Afghanistan following his meeting with Qatari officials on accelerating evacuations.
The US president, Joe Biden, has faced mounting pressure amid reports that several hundred people, also including Americans, had been prevented for a week from flying out of an airport in northern Afghanistan.
The Taliban told the United States that “they will let people with travel documents freely depart,” Blinken told a news conference in Doha where he and the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, met their Qatari opposite numbers. “We will hold them to that,” he said.
Qatar said that Kabul airport, largely closed since the conclusion of Washington’s chaotic withdrawal from the country at the end of August, would reopen soon, potentially opening an important corridor for Afghans seeking to leave.
“The entire international community is looking to the Taliban to uphold that commitment,” Blinken said, referring to a UN security council resolution that urged safe passage.
Biden’s senior cabinet members had dinner on arrival on Monday with Qatar’s ruler Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, where they expressed Washington’s thanks to Doha for its assistance with the Afghanistan airlift.