Afghanistan Humanitarian Update No. 1
UNHCR has had reports from all five of Afghanistan's main cities. So far, Herat in the west and Mazar-i-Sharif in the north appear to be relatively calm, with no major population movements reported.
However, Kandahar - the principal city in the south and the headquarters of the Taliban - is reported to be half empty. Large numbers of people are also reported to have left the capital Kabul, as well as Jalalabad, the main city in the east. Many of those leaving the cities are said to be heading for villages where they have family connections. But many others are headed for the Pakistan border, and possibly some for the Iranian border.
All borders with Afghanistan's neighbours are reported to be more or less closed, although it seems that Afghans with valid passports and visas have been able to enter Pakistan. UNHCR is currently in discussion with all neighbouring asylum countries on the border issue.
Although Iran has stated categorically that its border will remain closed, it has at the same time said it will assist any cross-border aid operations that may become necessary. UNHCR is currently trying to strengthen its monitoring of population movements both inside Afghanistan and on the borders.
Existing Humanitarian Crisis in Afghanistan
Even more worrying than the recent movements of people from the cities is the situation facing millions of Afghans all across the country who are barely managing to survive.
The situation inside Afghanistan after three years of drought and more than 20 years of continually evolving conflict, as well as large-scale human rights abuses, is extremely fragile. Afghans have over the years demonstrated immense reserves of strength and resourcefulness, but the population is now so weakened both physically and mentally, that this is no longer the case. During the course of this year they have finally hit rock bottom.
Before any of last week's events took place, there were already close to one million displaced people inside Afghanistan, and aid agencies were struggling to keep their heads above water. After the evacuation of all international aid agency staff, UNHCR is extremely worried that the situation for all these people - and millions of others - could deteriorate very rapidly, leading to major population movements, and even widespread deaths. Already many people are reported to be too weak even to become displaced. They simply don't have the strength or the resources to move from their villages.
Aid agencies are trying to keep up essential life-saving operations - such as the provision of food, water and shelter - through local Afghan staff who are still inside the country. However, UN agencies are concerned about how long we will be able to manage operations for such vast numbers of people by remote control. The local staff are already operating in a very difficult security environment, and have been told to exercise their own judgement about when and whether it is safe for them to work.
UNHCR Actions / Contingency Plans
UNHCR has sent extra emergency staff to the region, and more are on the way. UNHCR already has offices in all five countries surrounding Afghanistan, and a large operation in Pakistan. UNHCR is in the process of drawing up contingency plans for numerous different scenarios.
UNHCR is also evaluating existing stockpiles of relief items around the world, putting more staff on standby and taking all the other preparations necessary should this turn into a major refugee emergency. A Crisis Group has been formed involving the main UN agencies that will be working together should there be a major emergency. At headquarters in Geneva, UNHCR has also set up an emergency management structure.