UNHCR launches programme to help 200,000 vulnerable Afghans survive the winter

News Stories, 1 December 2009

© UNAMA/F.Waezi
Agha Mohammad, an Afghan returnee from Pakistan, turns up at a distribution point to collect his winter aid.

KABUL, Afghanistan, December 1 (UNHCR) The UN refugee agency on Tuesday began distributing blankets, sweaters, jerry cans and bags of charcoal to 1,500 of the neediest people in Kabul as part of a countrywide initiative to help some 200,000 vulnerable Afghans cope with the winter.

"The beneficiaries of our winter aid programme in Afghanistan are a mix of vulnerable recently returned refugees and internally displaced people, as well as others at particular risk in the cold winter weather," said Ewen Macleod, UNHCR's representative in Afghanistan.

"Since 2007 our winter assistance strategy has emphasized preparedness rather than emergency response. By giving out warm clothes, shoes and other winter relief items early in the season, we hope to prevent illness and hardship for the most vulnerable people," he added.

UNHCR has pre-positioned winter supplies throughout Afghanistan. More than 177,000 blankets, 60,000 plastic sheets, 60,000 jerry cans and 620,000 items of warm clothing, including shawls, sweaters, shoes and socks have been purchased and sent to UNHCR's regional offices for countrywide distribution.

In addition to non-food assistance and heating materials, in certain areas, more than 12,000 vulnerable families (72,000 individuals) will receive a cash voucher worth US$30 to buy heating materials or other items from identified retailers.

Some of the 250 deprived families to receive UNHCR's winter aid in Kabul today are returned refugees unable to stay in, or return to, their home villages because of lack of jobs, personal enmities, or, because their families have grown so large during years in exile, there is not enough land or shelter for them at home.

Agha Mohammad, who returned home from exile in Pakistan in 2002, was among those receiving aid in the Afghan capital. The 60-year-old said he was happy to get the assistance, "particularly these shoes, socks, sweater and blankets, as our children really need these items in this cold weather."

He is facing his eighth winter in Kabul, where the temperature often drops below -20 degrees Celsius in January. Mohammad, who heads a family of 11, says he cannot return to his village in the northern province of Baghlan because there are no jobs, services or land for him and his family.

He and his family live in a tiny room in an abandoned kindergarten, with gaping holes for windows and no running water or electricity. Another 59 refugee returnee families, who cannot return home, also stay there.

Fauzia, a mother of five children, was another beneficiary of the aid distribution. "Despite the winter problems in terms of food, we are grateful to the assistance from UNHCR today as our children really need these winter supplies," she said.

The refugee agency has teamed up with the government and local partners to ensure relief can reach the less accessible areas so rural families in dire need can also be assisted.

"In addition to the assistance received from UNHCR, many more Afghans will receive help from other agencies and private donors due to the agency's awareness-raising and advocacy efforts." said Grainne OHARA, UNHCR's head of central region office. The winterization programme is expected to be completed by the end of December.

UNHCR is urging donors to direct their assistance to outlying communities, such as the internally displaced people in Ghazni province and newly returned refugees in Logar and Wardak provinces, some of whom are still landless and homeless.

More than 52,000 Afghans have returned home from Pakistan and Iran under the UNHCR assisted voluntary return operation this year, some 30 percent of them to the eastern region. In all, more than 4.4 million Afghans have been assisted home since 2002.

By Mohammad Nader Farhad in Kabul, Afghanistan