Coalition Against International Terrorism

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:26 pm on 1st November 2001.

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Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Labour, Cynon Valley 2:26 pm, 1st November 2001

I have not attempted to speak in the House during the campaign, other than to make interventions on various Ministers. I stand here today with a heavy heart because I feel that we are facing an enormous humanitarian crisis.

For the past two weeks, we on the Select Committee on International Development have listened to various people from aid agencies, some of whom have been inside Afghanistan as recently as two weeks ago, some of whom have been expelled, but all of whom have particular knowledge of the situation there. They knew that there was a drought before 11 September, and they warned of its consequences. Since then, it has been made much more difficult to deliver not just food to that country, but tents, clothing and other supplies. They say that there is a two-week window of opportunity before it is too late for hundreds of thousands of people in Afghanistan.

I am not happy to stand here and say that 100,000 children may die unless we can get that aid to them in time, but that is what the United Nations Children's Fund has told us: 100,000 children could die in that country. Therefore, we all have a great responsibility to ensure that not only the military objectives but the diplomatic and humanitarian objectives are met, as other colleagues have said. I do not believe that the humanitarian objective is being met at the moment, although at the beginning of the campaign we were told that humanitarian, diplomatic and military efforts would run in parallel and would be mutually supportive. Obviously, that is not happening with regard to the humanitarian situation.

It is not the fault of the people who are waging the war, because it is a complex situation. The Taliban previously attacked aid agencies and imprisoned people who worked for them. They did not allow them to work with women. They did not allow many of the things that we expect aid agencies to do in a country. That was before the bombing started. Now that it is under way, we must take notice of the warnings coming from aid agencies across the board, from Islamic Relief to Oxfam, Christian Aid and Care International.

Two weeks running, we have heard those agencies giving evidence to our Committee. They are not so concerned about the people on the borders who are trying to become or are already refugees, because there is usually somebody to look after them. They are concerned about the displaced people inside Afghanistan. Hundreds of thousands of people were already displaced before the war started but have become even more so. Many have fled in terror to the borders or to friends and relatives out in the country.

There are estimated to be about 2 million displaced people inside Afghanistan. The difficulty will be to reach those people once the snows start. The aid agencies have different views on how to get the food into the country. A lot of figures are bandied about, but one important statistic is that people are getting only 19 per cent. of the food that they need. Whatever we say about metric tonnes, 19 per cent. is clear enough to everybody.

People are underfed. Many are already suffering from malnourishment, exhaustion and fear. Women are particularly vulnerable. Thousands are already war widows and have to fend for themselves. Dropping food parcels from the air may have to continue as a last resort, but it means that the healthy and the strong can run to get the food, while the weak, the vulnerable and the children cannot.

I am told that truck drivers are reluctant to drive food trucks in Afghanistan. They are afraid of looting, of being attacked and of bombing, because they do not know when it will happen. However, there are donkeys and carts and other ways of getting food to people, and that has to be done before the snows come.

I cannot stress strongly enough that we have a responsibility to deal with the humanitarian crisis, which the aid agencies believe is of gigantic proportions and may become a bigger catastrophe than anything seen before. I am sure that none of us wants that to happen, so we must call on our own Government and on the others involved in the action to find a mechanism to ensure that the humanitarian problem is addressed, and soon, so that at least we can hold up our heads and say that we did what we could. Whatever happens during the military action, we must not allow hundreds of thousands of Afghans to starve, but unless the humanitarian crisis is addressed now, that is what will happen.