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Human Rights

Fast-moving Afghanistan crisis ‘has hallmarks of humanitarian catastrophe’

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A mother and her child in the Haji camp for internally displaced people in Kandahar, Afghanistan. © UNICEF Afghanistan

Afghanistan is on course to witness its highest ever number of documented civilian casualties in a single year since records began, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said on Friday.

As widespread fighting intensifies, UNHCR said that it was particularly concerned about the impact of the conflict on women and girls as “80 per cent of nearly 250,0000 Afghans forced to flee since the end of May are women and children”, said spokesperson Shabia Mantoo.

“This is a staggering statistic,” Ms. Mantoo told journalists based at the UN in Geneva. “We need to raise the alarm about the disproportionate toll they are paying for what is happening on the ground.”

According to a report published last month jointly by the UN human rights office (OHCHR) and the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), more women and children were killed and wounded in the first half of 2021 than in the first six months of any year since records began in 2009.

Echoing fears about the impact of the fighting on civilians, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Tomson Phiri explained that the conflict “has accelerated much faster than we all anticipated and the situation has all the hallmarks of a humanitarian catastrophe”.

In a tweet on Thursday, the UN political affairs chief, Rosemary DiCarlo, said the Organization was “deeply concerned over the situation in the country: “One thing is clear from the country’s recent history: durable peace and development will not be achieved militarily. We’re ready to contribute to a negotiated settlement.”

More cities captured

According to latest reports, Taliban forces captured another three provincial capitals in the country’s south on Friday and are gradually encircling Kabul. The insurgents now control more than two-thirds of the country, only weeks before the planned final withdrawal of US and international troops.

The latest US military intelligence assessment suggests that the Afghan capital could come under insurgent pressure within 30 days. 

As widespread fighting intensifies, meanwhile, thousands of Afghans have fled their homes amid fears the Taliban would again impose a brutal, repressive government. The militant Islamist group ruled the country from the mid-1990s until the post 9/11 attacks US-led invasion, in late 2001.

Humanitarians are particularly concerned that the fighting is increasingly shifting to crowded urban areas, while UNHCR’s Shabia Mantoo noted that nearly 120,000 Afghans had fled from rural areas and provincial towns to Kabul province since the beginning of the year.

Child deaths rising: UNICEF

In an exclusive interview with the UN News French team, Mustapha Ben Messaoud, chief of field operations for the UN Children’s Fund,UNICEF, noted there had been a “very significant increase” in child deaths in the past four weeks.

One in two children under five suffers from severe acute malnutrition. They are extremely hungry, to the point of being ill. Today we have camps that are being set up, with no access to clean water and hygiene, and for us, that means the risk of cholera or diseases that can spread.”

He said the current wave of COVID-19 infection, was “killing 100 people a day…We have at least 2,000 cases that are positive a day, and these are just the cases that are counted.”

Alongside conflict and drought, he noted that multiple crises were hitting the most vulnerable hard. “Bombs don’t discriminate, they fall on women, children, the young…the elderly. This also means that we will probably have a population that will try to reach Iran, Turkey and Europe”, he added.

The UNICEF official compared the situation to height of the Syria crisis, and noted that he was at least happy to see two European nations vowing not to forcibly repatriate Afghan citizens, since fighting escalated.

Seeking shelter

The increasing number of civilians seeking shelter in towns and cities meant that “a growing number …do not have a place to sleep”, said Jens Laerke, spokesperson for UN humanitarian coordination office, OCHA. “Normally they would go to family and friends for shelter, but this is no longer the case.”

A spike in trauma cases has also been reported, aggravated by the recent escalation in violence. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) healthcare centres have seen a 30 per cent increase in patients compared to last year, with numbers almost doubling in the last two to three months, said WHO spokesperson Fadela Chaib.

The fighting has also created new challenges in reaching communities in need of food assistance around the country, warned the World Food Programme (WFP). “Aid workers are working under extraordinary circumstances,” said spokesperson Tomson Phiri, who noted that 18.4 million people already require humanitarian assistance, while the conflict has displaced up to 390,000 people this year alone.

In the last three months, WFP has provided food and nutrition assistance to 4.1 million people, Mr Phiri said, but this is not enough.

UN still delivering

Our plan is to scale-up assistance to reach nine million people by December,” he said. However, the UN agency is “severely under-resourced” and is needs $200 million “to get us through to the end of the year…to ensure food is where it’s needed when it’s needed.”

Reiterating the UN’s commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan, OCHA’s Jens Laerke insisted that the organization intended “to stay and deliver”.

Open border plea

UNHCR’s Shabia Mantoo, meanwhile, urged the international community to step up its response to this latest Afghanistan displacement crisis, appealing to neighbouring countries to “keep their borders open”, as an “inability to seek safety may risk innumerable civilian lives”.

Countries hosting Afghans who may have international protection needs should also ensure that they can seek safety, “regardless of their current legal status”, the UNHCR spokesperson insisted.

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Human Rights

Urgent action needed to protect Vietnamese workers trafficked to Serbia

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Urgent action is required to assist and protect some 400 Vietnamese migrant workers who were allegedly trafficked to Serbia, experts appointed by the UN Human Rights Council said on Friday. 

Eight companies, including Vietnamese labour recruitment agencies and Chinese construction firms registered in Serbia, have reportedly been implicated in serious human rights abuses, they said, citing information received.  

The experts have written to the businesses and are also in contact with authorities in the three countries.  

Appalling conditions 

“We are deeply concerned that these migrant workers may have been trafficked for purposes of forced labour, and have been living and working in appalling conditions in Serbia, at serious risk to their lives and health,” they said in a statement. 

They were also disturbed by allegations that civil society groups wanting to assist the workers have not been allowed access to them. 

The experts urged the Governments of Serbia, Viet Nam and China to ensure that businesses based in their territory, or operating under their jurisdiction, respect the human rights of all workers. 

“This includes not only the businesses who rely on migrant labour but also labour recruitment agencies,” they said. 

Duty to protect 

Regulation and monitoring of labour recruitment agencies is also critical to effectively prevent trafficking for the purposes of forced labour, they added. 

The experts reminded governments of their duty to protect against business-related human rights abuses. 

Countries must also take appropriate steps to ensure victims have access to justice and effective remedies, and to ensure ongoing assistance and protection, including against forced return. 

They also highlighted the obligations of businesses to exercise due diligence in ensuring that the rights of all workers are protected, without discrimination, recognising the particular needs and rights of migrant workers. 

Independent experts 

The eight human rights experts who issued the statement receive their mandates from the UN Human Rights Council, located in Geneva. 

They monitor and report on specific issues of global concern, which include trafficking in persons, contemporary forms of slavery, the human rights of migrants, and implementation of UN principles on business and human rights. 

The experts operate in their individual capacity and are neither UN staff nor are they paid for their work. 

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Human Rights

UNRWA condemns demolition of Palestinian home in East Jerusalem

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The Salhiyya family's personal belongings after the demolition of their home in East Jerusalem. © UNRWA

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Thursday urged Israeli to immediately halt all evictions and demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, after an entire family was forced out of their long-term home the previous day.  

Israeli police evicted the Salhiyya family from their two adjacent houses, according to news reports, in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem early on Wednesday, and later tore down the structures – a move which UNRWA’s West Bank field office has condemned. 

Staff who visited the scene on Thursday morning observed the total destruction of the property, with school bags, clothes and family photos still partially visible beneath the rubble. 

Against international law 

“Under international humanitarian law, the forcible transfer of protected persons, as well as the destruction of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons by Israel, as the occupying power, is strictly forbidden, except where such measures would be rendered absolutely necessary by imperative military reasons, or for the security of the population under occupation,” the agency said. 

The 15-member Salhiyya family, who include an older woman and young child, had been living in Sheikh Jarrah for nearly 40 years, according to UNRWA.   

The neigbourhood and tensions surrounding evictions, and attempted evictions, was at the heart of brutal fighting that erupted last year in Gaza, between Israel and the militant group, Hamas. 

Arrests and injuries 

Israeli forces raided the two Salhiyya houses on the property, at 3am on Wednesday, while the family was sleeping.   

In a matter of hours the homes, as well as their possessions, were destroyed, UNRWA said, adding that Israeli forces injured several family members during the eviction operations. 

The head of the family, Mahmoud Salhiyya, along with other relatives, was also arrested.  Mr. Salhiyya had threatened to set himself on fire two days ago after Israeli forces demolished his business, located next door. 

Other families at risk 

UNRWA stated that sadly, cases like the Salhiyya’s are not unique as scores of Palestine refugee families in different areas of Sheikh Jarrah alone – over 200 persons, many of them children – currently face imminent threat of eviction.  

Across East Jerusalem, an estimated 218 Palestinian households are at risk of displacement by the Israeli authorities, the agency said, citing 2020 data from the UN humanitarian affairs office, OCHA

These households comprise some 970 people, including 424 children. 

UNRWA called on the Israeli authorities to abide by international law and, as the occupying power, to ensure the protection of Palestine refugees and civilians in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem.  

“All individuals have a right to safe and secure housing and to live in peace and dignity,” said the agency. 

Agencies call for release of seriously ill child 

In another development in the region, UNRWA and two other UN agencies are calling for the immediate release of a seriously ill Palestinian child detained in Israel. 

Amal Nakhleh, now 18, has been held without charge for more than a year, a measure known as administrative detention.  He has a rare neuromuscular disorder, according to media reports. 

Israel has extended his detention until 18 May, according to a statement issued on Thursday by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UNRWA, and the UN human rights office, OHCHR

“Neither Amal nor his lawyers or family have been informed of the reasons for his arrest and detention. Amal suffers from a severe autoimmune disease that requires continuous medical treatment and monitoring,” they said. 

Not an isolated case 

The UN agencies called for his “immediate and unconditional release”, in line with international human rights law. 

This is not an isolated case, they added, as currently at least three Palestinians are in administrative detention who were under age 18 when they were first detained. 

“We echo the calls of the UN Secretary-General who in his Report on Children and Armed Conflict has, every year since 2015, urges Israel to end the administrative detention of children. This practice deprives children of their liberty and must immediately end.” 

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Human Rights

UNRWA seeks $1.6 billion to support Palestinian refugees in 2022

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A young girl takes part in UNRWA's Keeping Kids Cool summer activities in Gaza. © UNRWA 2021/Mohamed Hinnawi

The UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, on Tuesday appealed for $1.6 billion to support its lifesaving work this year amid acute regional crises and chronic funding shortfalls. 

UNRWA provides services and programmes, including education, health and food assistance, to more than five million Palestinians across the Middle East. 

The 2022 budget proposal includes additional emergency funding to address humanitarian needs arising from crises in Gaza, the West Bank, Syria, and Lebanon. 

‘Indispensable’ to stability 

Philippe Lazzarini, the agency’s Commissioner-General, said budget shortfalls pose a serious threat to its ability to maintain operations. 

“The international community recognizes the lifesaving role of UNRWA and its indispensable contribution to stability in the Middle East. It also recognizes how cost-efficient and agile UNRWA is. In 2022, that recognition must be supported by the adequate level of funding to meet this critical moment for Palestine refugees,” he said

The budget proposal comes as UNRWA confronts chronic funding gaps as needs keep rising. 

Distress and despair 

It is estimated that 2.3 million Palestinian refugees are living in poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to threaten health and livelihoods. 

Distress and despair have become the norm among Palestinian refugees, according to UNRWA.  Many, particularly in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon, report that they are ready to use any means to try to migrate outside of the region. 

Breaking the cycle 

UNRWA has committed to investing in comprehensive programmatic reform and modernization to meet needs in an even more cost-effective and efficient manner.  

The agency said that being fully-funded across its full range of services, will assist its efforts towards breaking the cycle of despair among Palestinian refugees through measures such as providing some $31.2 million in microfinance loans and carrying out vital structural improvements to refugee camps. 

 “The amount that UNRWA is requesting for 2022 will directly contribute to the wellbeing of Palestine refugees, to efforts to combat and contain COVID-19 and to regional stability,” said Mr. Lazzarini. urging donors to step up. 

“The international community must give UNRWA sufficient and predictable funding so we may continue to provide Palestine refugees with a sense of security and normality they deserve.” 

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