(Updates to clarify cold is contributing to, not the sole cause of, deaths among displaced in paragraph 1, and to distinguish between aid agency and UN officials' comments in paragraph 4)
By Nita Bhalla
NEW DELHI, (AlertNet) – The bitter cold of the Afghan winter is contributing to a rising number of deaths, particularly among children, in urban slums across the country where vulnerable displaced Afghans struggle to survive, aid agencies said on Tuesday.
Human rights group Amnesty International said its research showed at least 11 children and six adults had died in the last month as a result of the cold weather, though there are no official figures.
"We have repeatedly called on the government and the humanitarian community to prepare better for the winter, but the response has been patchy and in an ad hoc manner," said Maya Pastakia, Amnesty's Afghanistan campaigner. "It's too little, too late."
U.N. officials said the food, blankets and firewood being handed out were just ‘a band aid’ while other aid agencies called on the government to give higher priority to providing permanent settlements for the displaced.
Attacks by militants, and air strikes and operations by international and Afghan forces, have uprooted more than half a million people from their homes over the past decade, forcing them to seek refuge in slums in the capital, Kabul, and other cities such as Herat and Mazar-i-Sharif, where they are exposed to disease, hunger and poverty.
Scores of illegal settlements have sprung up, largely ignored by the authorities, who have no policy on dealing with the internally displaced and have been unable to resettle them, partly because of the continuing violence in the impoverished country.
U.N. officials in Afghanistan admit there have been a number of deaths among displaced people living in urban slums since winter set in, but say the international aid community has been responding adequately.
"This is not the first time people are suffering. Last year we had a very harsh winter and there was a lot of attention to the fact that lots of displaced people were dying in Kabul's informal settlements as a consequence of the harsh winter," Arnhild Spence, deputy head of the U.N. Office of the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs, told AlertNet.
"This year there has been a more focused effort by the humanitarian aid community to prepare for this, so the preparation has been quite successful and focused on the informal settlements."
Spence said U.N. agencies and other aid groups had been distributing blankets, firewood and food but that was just a "band aid" solution to the wider problem of permanent resettlement for the displaced.
Aid agencies say the squalid slums where families have been living for years have no basic services such as water and sanitation or amenities such as health services or schools. There is little work available, leaving many residents dependent on begging and handouts.
The government has been reluctant to build proper shelters or provide permanent amenities as it fears this would encourage more displaced people to move into these illegal settlements.
The authorities are in the process of drafting a policy on how to deal with displaced Afghans, but aid workers say this should be a priority.
"I think that much more needs to be done to prioritise the internally displaced, they should be given adequate assistance and protection," said Caroline Howard, Afghanistan analyst at the Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.
"After all, they are among the most vulnerable groups in Afghanistan."