Statement by Indrika Ratwatte, UNHCR Asia Director, to the Canadian House of Commons' Special Committee on Afghanistan
Since the events of last August, UNHCR and other organizations working on the ground have been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe in Afghanistan and of the risk of further displacement.
A collapsing economy, deepening poverty, and the most severe drought and crippling food shortages seen in decades, are pushing over half of Afghanistan’s population into extreme levels of hunger. The situation is especially tenuous for the 3.4 million people who remain displaced due to conflict within the country – 80 percent of whom are women and children.
Together with our partners, UNHCR has stayed and delivered in Afghanistan throughout the tumult of 2021, assisting close to 1 million Afghans with cash assistance, emergency shelter, and essential relief items. Amidst harsh winter conditions, humanitarian response has become even more critical than ever before. UNHCR has scaled up its field presence with the deployment of 264 additional staff, including 69 international staff and 195 national staff, bringing our footprint to a total of 337 staff.
Thanks to the support received, we are already seeing some glimmers of hope despite the challenges. An estimated 170,000 internally displaced Afghans have returned home since August 2021, buoyed by the fact that many parts of the country are more secure than they were before, due to the end of the conflict. As the international community, we must seize such opportunities to ensure that the hard-earned gains of the last 20 years do not fall away.
Despite the uncertain situation in Afghanistan, we cannot forget the Afghans who have previously fled the country and are being hosted in neighbouring countries. Iran and Pakistan, notably, continue to host over 2.2 million registered Afghan refugees and 4 million other Afghans for over four decades. Despite facing their own security concerns and socio-economic challenges further compounded by COVID, they have pursued inclusive policies towards refugees, particularly in the areas of education and health care. Their generosity cannot be taken for granted and support for the host countries must be increased. To this end UNHCR – complementing the HRP that was launched for Afghanistan – has launched in January a regional Refugee Response Plan requesting USD 623 million to support Afghan refugees as well as their host communities in neighbouring countries.
Over the last year, UNHCR has recorded 160,000 Afghans who have sought international protection in neighbouring countries. However, many more Afghans finding the present situation in Afghanistan untenable continue to use irregular means to reach neighbouring countries. UNHCR remains very concerned about the risk of continued human rights violations against civilians in Afghanistan – particularly women and girls – in this evolving context. Given this fluid situation and the debilitating conditions inside Afghanistan, the risk remains high that increasing numbers may feel compelled to flee the country and move onwards within and outside the region.
It is with this in mind that UNHCR’s work in the region, underpinned by the Solutions Strategy for Afghan Refugees (SSAR), also remains focused on solutions. While life-saving humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan is required and essential to address the most urgent needs, complementing this with programmes to stabilize Afghan populations in Afghanistan and refugees in neighbouring countries, remains equally critical. These programmes require humanitarian and development resources, which are crucial to averting a deepening of the crisis and to maintaining a focus on building resilient communities and pursuing solutions. As such, UNHCR and partners have adopted a community focused area-based approach in 55 priority districts in Afghanistan, focusing mainly on investing in basic services such as health, education and livelihoods, that benefit all Afghans – including the internally displaced and returnees – with a view to stabilize communities and mitigate further displacement.
In the same vein, resettlement will remain a critical protection and solutions tool for individuals with acute protection needs, preserved as a life-saving mechanism for those with heightened vulnerabilities. A significant increase in UNHCR’s resettlement capacity in neighbouring countries has been initiated already with 164 staff deployed by the first quarter of 2022 to enhance resettlement from host countries. UNHCR welcomes Canada’s commitment to expand third country solutions for Afghan refugees through resettlement and other pathways, as these spaces are extremely valuable for Afghan refugees, who have previously arrived, and those who have arrived more recently. To this end, UNHCR is also grateful for Canada’s pilot Economic Mobility Pathways Project (EMPP) aimed at expanding labour mobility pathways.
Finally, UNHCR is grateful for Canada’s deep commitment and support and stands ready to continue our valued partnership with the Government of Canada to ensure that humanitarian assistance and third country pathways continue to address the most acute needs of Afghans. But we can and must do more in Afghanistan’s greatest hour of need.